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Buying history is sometimes the only way it can be saved

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

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

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

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

1910 Horse tower trestle A b&w

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

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

2008 Twp Hall

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

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

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

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

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

2010 March 5 fire bell remove

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear brother son Max S.

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

Your uncle Hans J. S.”

1910 Horse tower trestle B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIT WITH AN AX;

ROBBED OF $300

John Schmidt, Oswego Saloon-Keeper,

Knocked Unconscious Last Night.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Architecture, Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Cheap or thrifty? You be the judge…

My family was barely middle class and far from rich. But my mother and my grandmother both knew how to make things look nice and very middle classy.

My mom’s family were all Germans, some more recently from the Old Country than others. In 1885, her father’s family immigrated from East Prussia. They had been employed on one of the Kaiser’s estates, where my great-grandfather had been a gardener. Her mother’s family, on the other hand, had arrived here in 1750, settling in Pennsylvania and becoming one of the Pennsylvania Dutch families that lived in and around Lancaster County. They emigrated to Illinois in 1852, nearly a century after they arrived here in the New World.

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Castle Garden in New York harbor was the original point of entry for immigrants before Ellis Island opened. It welcomed immigrants from 1820 to 1892.

Even though Grandma’s family had been in North America for a century, they still spoke German at home, so they mixed easily with the new German immigrants that had begun arriving in Illinois in the 1840s. My grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, although not so late they got here by the time Ellis Island was the main European immigrants’ processing center. Instead, they came through Castle Garden, Ellis Island’s predecessor, and then traveled west to Aurora, Illinois to join my great-grandmother’s family as part of the chain migration cycle that modern right wing politicians decry.

They were thrifty, hard workers, those German and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors of mine. They knew how to hang onto a dollar so tightly that, as the song says, the eagle on it grinned.

My mother said they were tight. My sisters said they were so tight they squeaked. My grandmother calmly explained to be once, “Well, that’s just the way we did.”

The rule was to hang onto what you had, make do, make it last, fix it if you need to, and keep using it until it was unusable. Even my teacher (of English descent) at our one-room rural school was part of the infrastructure that pounded thrift into us. “Waste not, want not” was her favorite saying. Because thrift was the thing back then for all of us, something left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wartime rationing of the 1940s.

1895 abt Amelia, Edith, Mable Lantz Lantz Farm

The Lantz family farmhouse in 1894. Left to right are my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz, my great-aunt, Edith Lantz, and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz.

For instance, when we moved to town after my dad retired from farming in 1954, I was introduced to student banking. Every week my third grade classmates would put a few coins in small brown envelopes that were sent off to the bank where we had our very own savings accounts. There was a lot of peer pressure to participate in student banking back then.

My mother ran a very thrifty household, but her mother seemed to think she was awfully liberal with her spending. For instance, my mother absolutely hated stale bread. Her one vice was to retire a loaf of bread as soon as it became even slightly stale. Not that she threw it away, of course. Instead, I grew up eating lots of bread pudding. That hit two birds with one stone, it prevented us from throwing out perfectly good bread and it provided dessert, with which no meal in my household was complete.

My grandmother was even thriftier than my mother. Stale bread was good bread as far as she was concerned. Moldy? Scrape it off and don’t complain. A little mold is probably good for you anyway.

But my grandmother’s parents were, hands down, the winners in the family thrift sweepstakes.

1899 Haines Inman Young at work

While working on the Watts Cutter house on Main Street in Oswego, Irvin “Irvy” Haines snapped this photo of the crew. Left to right are Dan Minnich, Lew Inman, Haines (note hand blurred when he pulled the cable to snap the shot), and Lou C. Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

My great-grandparents worked the family farm until they decided to retire in 1906 when my great-grandfather was 60 and my great-grandmother was 57. They bought land just outside the village limits of Oswego, Illinois on which to build their retirement home, selecting the vacant parcel between my great-grandmother’s parents’ house and her sisters’ house.

To build their new retirement home, they chose my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines (the family called him Irvy). Haines was a well-known Oswego contractor who worked, off and on, with a crew of other local carpenters including Lou C. Young, and two of Haines’ cousins, Lew Inman and Dan Minnich.

What they chose to have Haines build for them was a Queen Anne-style, story-and-a-half farmhouse design. Haines must have liked the design; he built at least three of them, including the one for my great-grandparents, one in neighboring Montgomery, Illinois, and one on a farm just outside of Oswego on Collins Road.

It was an interesting design, and relatively advanced for the period. On the exterior, it had clapboard siding that was wider on the first floor that narrowed on the second floor, drawing the eye up to the steeply-pitched roof making it look larger and taller than it actually was. Shingles and brackets in the peak provided a bit of interest, as did Greek Revival-like columns at the corners and which provided support for the front porch with its steep stairs. It was finished off with a fireproof lifetime roof of fiber-reinforced concrete shingles as protection against cinders and ash produced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy locomotives that puffed through the backyard on the CB&Q’s Fox River Line. When they advertised them as lifetime shingles, they weren’t kidding. They’re still on the house and they’re still in great shape.

2005 Lantz-Matile House

The Queen Anne house Irvy Haines finished for his Aunt Amelia and Uncle John Peter Lantz in 1907 Note how the varying widths of clapboard siding draw the eye up towards the steep peak of the roof..

Inside, the home was fashionably dressed with long-leaf yellow pine woodwork throughout, including the tall kitchen cabinet, and built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor. The kitchen got a birdseye maple floor, while the rest of the house was floored with the same yellow pine used for the woodwork. It also included closets in each of the three upstairs bedrooms and a coat closet near the front door, relatively rare amenities that were rapidly gaining in popularity at the time. Also installed was a modern acetylene gas lighting system, powered by an acetylene gas generator in the basement.

But the biggest modern feature of the house was the indoor bathroom. Their farmhouse had never had such a modern thing, and it was something to behold with its white porcelain toilet and sink and its claw-foot cast iron tub.

1937 G&G Lantz smiling.jpg

My great-grandparents celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary in the house Irvy Haines built for them in Oswego, Illinois

It was a grand house and an upgrade from their farmhouse, but the thing in their minds as they moved into town in October 1907 seems to have been resale. After all, while they were healthy they were definitely getting on in years and who knew how long they’d live. So they decided it would be too easy to wear out this wonderful house young Irvy Haines built for them. So they had him add a full kitchen in the basement where they could spend most of their time, and made sure he included an outhouse at the end of the sidewalk in back of their combination town barn and chicken house so they didn’t wear out the nice modern kitchen and bathroom upstairs.

It was an interesting plan and sensible, I guess, from their point of view. The problem was, however, that they didn’t live there for 10 years and die. Instead, they lived in the house for more than 30 years and it finally got to the point that resale value was about the last thing they worried about as they celebrated their 73rd anniversary there, still cooking in the basement and using the outhouse so as not to wear out their nice kitchen and bathroom.

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The long-leaf yellow pine woodwork in my great-grandparents’ house is still in good shape after more than 110 years.

Ownership of the house devolved to my grandmother after her parents’ death. My aunt and uncle lived there during World War II, moving up into Oswego proper in the early 1950s. The house was available when my parents moved off the farm, so they bought it from my grandparents. My wife and I bought it from my mother in 1976 and owned it until we moved across the street last year. My son lives there now with his family, the fifth generation of our family to enjoy it. His son asked him if he has to live there when he grows up, and he was assured it would be a strictly voluntary thing.

The living-in-the-basement thing ended when my aunt and uncle move there in 1943. When my parents moved there, my mother did some remodeling in keeping with the 1950s, ‘modernizing’ it by removing the yellow pine plate rail in the dining room, the picture rails in the living and dining rooms, and the cornices on the door frames, so it’s not quite as elegant as it was when Irvy Haines wrapped up construction back in ’08.

But I like to think that our family’s recycling the home that’s been going on for the past four generations sort of reflects the ethos of my great-grandparents that you don’t get rid of something just because it isn’t new and further that you take good care of what your have and make it last as long as you can. So, while none of us have lived in the basement, and while the old outhouse has gone the way of the rest of that breed, we’re still maintaining the old homestead just as we’ve done for the past 112 years. And with the care and skill Irvy Haines used when he built the place, it’s not impossible it will still be standing tall when my grandson’s grandchildren wonder about its history.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, family, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

There are no obvious answers to reversing the decline of rural America

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion in Washington, D.C. these days concerning what to do about the decline in quality of life many rural areas of the country are experiencing.

Economic opportunity seems to have disappeared from the less-populated areas of the country while it has steadily grown in larger urban areas, especially on the nation’s East and West Coasts, as well as the Chicago metro region, not to mention some of the larger urban areas in the Sunbelt.

But the old Rust Belt areas of the East and Midwest, Appalachia, and the farming areas in the center of the country have seen a steady drain on population as the farming, heavy industry, and mining on which the areas once depended have slowly shrunk or disappeared completely.

So what’s causing this economic dislocation? Different things get blamed in different areas of the country. In Appalachia, the coal mining that was once the dominant industry has all but disappeared as the use of coal has steadily declined to the point that mining jobs in, say, West Virginia have sharply dropped. These days, more than twice as many people are employed in health care as in mining. And, following the national trend, the pay for the jobs in growth fields is much less than the old jobs in mining and manufacturing.

Oswego village limits.jpg

While many rural communities in the agricultural Midwest have declined, sometimes sharply, Oswego, Illinois’ population has boomed due to its proximity to the Chicago Metro Region.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, which is what I’m concentrating today, the number of farmers continues to steadily decline, outpacing the loss or repurposing of agricultural land. Nowadays, with giant computerized agricultural equipment, one farmer can work more land than ten could farm 50 years ago. And with modern hybrids, and computerized planting and harvesting equipment that accurately record yields so that fertilizers and pesticides are only applied where needed, yields are typically several times what they were 50 years ago.

Farming was once extremely labor-intensive, especially in the production of the small grains of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Until the middle of the 19th Century, planting, tilling, and harvesting small grains hadn’t changed all that much for the preceding 1,000 years. It was sown by hand and tended and cultivated by hand. Harvesting consisted of cutting it by hand using scythes, gathering the cut grain into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. Then threshing the grain from the stalks by hand using flails and then winnowing it—by hand—to separate the chaff from the grain before it could be bagged or shoveled into bins.

But shortly after the pioneer era ended here in Kendall County, farmers began to adopt a variety of machines to help in the small grain harvest, from horse-drawn harvesters that cut the grain—later models of which also tied the stalks into bundles—to other machines that were developed to thresh the grain from the stalks. By the early 20th Century, combined harvesters were developed that cut and threshed grain all in one pass.

In 1830, as Kendall County settlement was beginning, it took 250 to 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, efforts at horse-drawn mechanization were having a huge impact as it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By the 1930s, with the introduction of gas-powered tractors, the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of wheat had been cut to just 15 to 20 hours. With today’s huge modern equipment, it takes a farmer less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat.

1887 Binder at work

By 1887, harvesters had turned into binders that cut and bundled grain to ready it for threshing, greatly reducing the labor needed to produce a crop.

But wheat was not a major crop here in northern Illinois much past the settlement era since the humid climate doesn’t favor it. But our climate does favor growing corn, which was a major crop from the very beginning when Native People began farming the Illinois prairies. American settlers took up where the ancient people left off, turning over the wild prairie grasses with breaking plows and growing huge amounts of corn in ever increasing varieties.

Corn farming, like small grain farming, greatly benefited from mechanization. In 1840 it took one farmer about 280 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields were about 36 bushels per acre. By 1950 hybrids and modern fertilizers pushed yields to about 50 bushels per acre. But thanks to mechanization, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had been cut to only about 14 hours. Today, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields of more than 200 bushels per acre are common.

Successful efforts at mechanization have had fairly dramatic effects on farming across the nation, including here in Kendall County. Improvements in farm technology, from mechanization to better hybrids to improved fertilizers and pesticides have led, over the years, to fewer, larger farms. In 1950, there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County averaging 180 acres each. By 2012, the number had dropped to just 364 farms that were twice as large, averaging 356 acres.

John Deere corn harvester

Huge modern equipment allows one farmer to do the work it previously took 10 to do. The modernization of agriculture has had a significant impact on rural America.

The economic impact on Kendall County created by those profound changes in farming have not had a negative economic impact here, because beginning in the 1990s, instead of growing corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of farmland, we began growing residential and retail developments. Kendall County is at the end of the growth funnel created by the U.S. Route 34 corridor that continues to inject new residents here looking for less expensive housing than can be found to the immediate east, along with good schools, parks, libraries and other amenities families look for. Yes, that growth can often create problems. But the problems are minuscule compared with other rural areas of the Midwest are suffering as the result of changes created, I believe, in large part by the changes in agriculture.

All over Iowa, for instance, small towns are declining, watching their once-thriving business districts turn into vacant storefronts as the community is served, if they’re lucky, by a Casey’s General Store mini-mart and gas station. Up in Wisconsin, in country where there used to be thousands of small dairy farms, pastures and hayfields are now overgrown with brush and trees as barns and whole farmsteads are overtaken by the Northwoods. The smaller dairy farms were forced out of business by a combination of consolidation by larger corporate farms and implementation of stronger health standards that penalized smaller farms.

A case in point is the small northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. My family has been heading up to Butternut Lake a couple miles north of town for more than 40 years now. And during that time the town’s population has declined by one-third.

So what’s going on in those areas not lucky enough to be near a vibrant region like the Chicago metro region? The answer I found lies in those farming statistics I cited above. One farm family can now take care of what 10 farm families tended 60 years ago. For every farm family left, there are nine fewer families to send their children to local schools, nine fewer families who go to church on Sunday, nine fewer families buying back-to-school clothes and supplies, and nine fewer farmers patronizing the local lumberyard, hardware store, and implement dealer. Even more population leaches out of communities as businesses leave and that makes it difficult to maintain public services from roads to fire departments to schools and impossible to attract any new classes of business that could conceivably replace agriculture. Most of these communities have seen their rail service, along with the tracks themselves, eliminated long ago by the frenzy of railroad consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s, and they’re too far from any Interstate highway, not to mention raw materials and potential customers, that could make locating a manufacturing operation there economical.

small depressed town

Small towns all over Iowa, central Illinois, and other areas of the rural Midwest are slowly dying as their populations evaporate.

It’s a negative feedback loop that turns into a death spiral: Children of the families that remain graduate from high school and can find no jobs, so they move away as do families with skills or wherewithal to find new jobs and start new lives elsewhere, increasing the population drain and leaving behind a populace that is increasingly unskilled, elderly, and impoverished that today is often also afflicted by the nation’s tragic opioid epidemic.

So, what’s to be done? I have no idea. Farmers certainly aren’t going to go back to growing crops with horse-drawn equipment. The local department, grocery, and hardware stores, even if they tried to come back, couldn’t compete with Walmart.

It’s probably a good thing that people are starting to look at these depressed areas with a view towards doing something to help them. But it’s going to take a much smarter person than I to figure out how to counteract the negative impact of nearly 200 years of technological progress on rural America.

 

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Filed under Business, family, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.

In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.

While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.

Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.

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George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.

In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels 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.

The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.

Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious 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.

The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”

The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.

By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.

Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”

On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”

From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.

Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.

Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.

The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.

At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.

When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.

 

 

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

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

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

2001 Aug 23 N from Van Buren.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

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

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

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

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

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

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

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My generation and how we came to view the Civil War…

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read semi-regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece back in the summer of 2017 entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his strange views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I, for that matter—were getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays for all to see. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which was not well.

But recently I got to thinking about that again as I did research on how the Civil War affected Kendall County in general and Oswego in particular. The war had a huge impact locally. For instance, it was probably responsible, at least in part, for Kendall County’s long-term population decline. Kendall did not reach its 1860 population again until the 1920 census was taken.

And those thoughts, in turn, got me to thinking about that article I’d read back in 2017 and how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best and outright racist at worst.

1859 john brown

John Brown, who attempted to start a rebellion against the U.S. Government, could reasonably be declared a terrorist. He was executed after his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Abraham Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

1859 underground railroad

Some of the local stations on the Underground Railroad just before the Civil War. From the 1914 history of Kendall County.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

lee, robert e

Robert E. Lee, while he was still a loyal U.S. Army officer.

Then there was Robert Lee, who seems to have neither been an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

1864 grant at cold harbor

Gen. Hiram Ulysses Grant photographed at Cold Harbor, 1864. Grant later said Cold Harbor was the one battle during the war he’d rather never to have done.

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War.

What about the idea that Grant was a clumsy butcher who only won because he was indifferent to the numbers of Union casualties he caused? Modern research suggests that’s simply not true. Using actual casualty figures, historians have now concluded that the term “butcher” might better fit Lee. In Grant’s major federal campaigns, he suffered just a bit more than 94,000 killed and wounded. Meanwhile, in Lee’s major campaigns, he suffered more than 121,000 killed and wounded. Lee continually dismissed the strategic fact that he couldn’t afford casualties at all; he was badly outnumbered by the American military.

murdock, a.x pooley

Oswegoans Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were two of the young men who died during the Civil War, killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church in 1864. More than 200 Kendall County soldiers died during the war.

Immediately after the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Record editor John R. Marshall commented about the recent conflict and the Southerners who conducted it: “The great and final act of the accursed slaveholders’ rebellion has culminated in this one outrageous, dastardly, and hellborn murder.”

There was even more general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to terrorize freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights as American citizens. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

Unfortunately, those tools were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights.

But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

When I think back on it, the casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too.

Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. His Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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