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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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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

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.

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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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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

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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Filed under Civil War, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

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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Shabbona’s life a microcosm of 19th Century white – Indian relations…

We took a drive up to Aurora with some friends this past week to both visit a Fox River art exhibit at Aurora University and to listen to a speaker at AU’s Schingoethe Center. It was a very satisfying evening.

The exhibit, open through Dec. 14, is “Joel Sheesley: A Fox River Testimony,” featuring 73 landscapes painted during a two-year period, in all seasons of the year, from West Dundee in the north to Ottawa in the south. A number of scenes Sheesley chose for subjects were familiar, but his vision of those familiar spots makes them look fresh and new, and gave me, at least, a new appreciation of the beauty of our river valley. I highly recommend this exhibit. If you can’t make it, though, don’t worry because it sounds like it may also be coming to the Little White School Museum next spring.

After enjoying view of the valley, we wandered over to the Tapper Recital Hall in the same building to hear “The Power of Place: The Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Illinois and the Fox River Valley” by Dr. John N. Low of the Ohio State University at Newark, OH.

Low’s an interesting guy. Himself an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, he’s earned a juris doctorate as well as a Ph.D in American Culture and is currently on the OSU faculty.

Leopold Pokagon

Chief Leopold Pokagon

My rule of thumb is that it’s a poor day when I don’t learn something new, and Low certainly taught me something new the other evening, namely that all of the members of the Three Fires Confederacy were not forced west by the U.S. Government in 1836. A separate band of 280 individuals, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi named after the chief, Leopold Pokagon, was allowed to stay in southern Michigan and northern Indiana after the Treaty of 1833 extinguished the claims of the rest of the Three Fires’ land in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.

Between 1836 and 1838, the rest of the Three Fires were rounded up and forced west, including two well-known local chiefs, Waubonsie and Shabbona.

Although Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted in 1829. He returned to Illinois in 1837 despite the official removal then going on and lived at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been seized and sold at public auction. This high-handed act has resulted in more than a little legal action over the years, which, as I understand it, isn’t settled yet.

1858 abt Shabbona

Chief Shabbona, about 1858

The citizens of Ottawa, however, seeing that the old chief’s land had been stolen from him, pooled their resources and bought him a small farm near Seneca in LaSalle County.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington, the son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother. Just under 6 feet in height, he was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely, as it was spelled phonetically. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena.

1765 Pontiac

Pontiac, about 1765. As no portraits of the Ottawa chief are known to exist, this is an artist’s conception.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac planned, organized, and carried out 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, aiming to fill the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois and Indiana where they settled along the Wabash, Kankakee, Illinois, St. Joseph, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

The three tribal groups mixed freely and frequently. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potawatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an Ottawa, was elevated to chief upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires were mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British. After the Revolution, British forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military leader Blue Jacket.

1812 Tecumseh

Tecumseh, about 1812, in a British Army uniform.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won the battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict.

Despite the setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American opposition to U.S. control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, where he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s views, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin recruiting more members for the Wabash Confederacy.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Chief Waubonsee, about 1840

In 1812, war again broke out between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois, and after much deliberation, he concluded further opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1825, when the Winnebagos decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities. In return, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove in modern DeKalb County, and where the chief moved his village.

When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful. On the war’s outbreak, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to Chicago. One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potowatomis angered by Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that all Indians were to be removed from Illinois, and most were, with the exception of the Pokagon Band. And, as we saw above, Shabbona.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Shabbona’s friends in LaSalle County showed their appreciation for his efforts to maintain peace, and then to reduce human losses when the Black Hawk War broke out not only by helping him financially after his land had been stolen, but also by treating him as one of the community’s honored citizens.

1857 Shabbona ambrotype in case

Ambrotype of Chief Shabbona taken about 1857.

Which brings me to another interesting fact about the folks who lived in the Fox and Illinois River valleys in the 19th Century. The very first Lincoln and Douglas Debate, held during the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois was held at Ottawa. Both Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, and Douglas, the old-line Democrat, were well known politicians, Lincoln also famed because of his extremely successful legal career. So the crowd on hand to listen to the debate was a big one. The stage set up on the grounds of the LaSalle County Courthouse on the square in Ottawa provided room for the two speakers, plus chairs for local dignitaries. And among those invited luminaries was elderly Chief Shabbona, who by all accounts was warmly greeted by his Black Hawk War comrade, Abe Lincoln, who had served in the Illinois militia during the conflict.

Shabbona lived on his small farm near Seneca until the end of his life on July 17, 1859

What interests me is that just two decades after the Indians had been forcibly removed from Illinois, and less than 25 years after the Black Hawk War itself, Shabbona found himself treated as an honored citizen and local dignitary. That’s something that somehow doesn’t quite fit in with our usual view of how whites treated Indians during that era.

Shabbona is buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery under a marker paid for by donations from his admiring friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile, the Pokagon Band of Potawtomi Indians was not treated as a legitimate part of the Potawatomi Nation or the Three Fires Confederacy because, like Shabbona, they ultimately chose to stay. But following 160 years of struggle, they were finally granted official tribal status in 1994.

These two stories represent just some of the unknown stories about how Native People were treated differently by a disinterested and borderline hostile government and sympathetic local residents. Most, but not all of the Three Fires were forced west on what they came to call the Trail of Death. And most, but not all those forced west never returned. But there were exceptions and those exceptions make for great local history.

 

 

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World War I soldiers deserve our President’s recognition and respect…

So last week, Donald Trump flew over to France to represent the U.S. as the rest of the world, especially the European powers, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

During its brief participation in the conflict, the U.S. suffered 53,402 combat deaths and a grand total of 116,708 deaths from all causes. Another 204,002 soldiers, sailors, and marines were wounded. As things go, that wasn’t an overwhelming total of fatalities—more than 600,000 died during the four years of the Civil War and the nation would suffer 407,300 total deaths during the upcoming Second World War, along with another 672,000 wounded.

But the U.S. only participated in World War I for 19 months, and suffered about the same casualties as in the war in Vietnam, which lasted 18 years, 10 months and 23 days between the first death on April 8, 1956 and the final two men killed in action on April 29, 1975.

World War I really ushered the U.S. onto the world scene, and while our nation’s part of the conflict was relatively brief, it also involved brutal, fierce combat. In Europe, the war resulted in an entire generation of young men being killed, maimed, and mentally injured. For them, it was a horrific, seemingly never-ending series of battles that gained no ground and resulted in no resolution. Not until the fresh troops supplied by the U.S. arrived at the front did the Germans and their allies finally come to the conclusion they could not win the war. And so at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans capitulated, finally ending the horrific bloodshed.

For our current European allies—and even our foes during that long-ago war—this centenary commemoration was a major event. Which made it doubly disappointing that our current President found it inconvenient to attend solemn ceremonies honoring all the war’s dead, including those tens of thousands of young men and women from the U.S. who served. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he likewise found it inconvenient to attend ceremonies here in the U.S. marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Which made it seem an awful lot like he simply didn’t care about those who paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation—including the three men from Kendall County who were killed in action.

burson marker

Plano resident Leon Burson was the second Kendall County resident killed in action during World War I.

World War I, it seems, is no more familiar to most Americans—including, it seems, the current President—than the Civil War. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember elderly World War I vets riding to the cemetery on Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day by our grandparents—escorted by the color guard of young World War II and Korean Conflict vets, much like those World War II and Korean Conflict vets are escorted today by honor guards of Vietnam War and Desert Storm vets. Armistice Day—today’s Veterans Day—was an even more somber celebration, originally commemorating the service of those who went “over there” to fight the Kaiser.

It was hoped World War I would be the “War to End All Wars.” Several Kendall County residents lost their lives during the conflict, most dying from disease including the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. But many others were killed in action during the conflict, including three county residents, one each from Plattville, Oswego, and Plano.

After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Fred P. Thompson, a 34 year-old Plattville blacksmith, was determined to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Aurora on May 28, and was assigned to the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments comprising the 1st Expeditionary Division, later renamed the 1st Infantry Division.

Thompson, in fact, was among the first U.S. troops to land in France. Though virtually untrained, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who were exhausted after years of seemingly unending war. On Independence Day, July 4, 1917 the 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion paraded through Paris, where one of General John J. Pershing’s staff is said to have announced, in a reference to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, “Lafayette, we are here!”

On Oct. 21, the 1st Division was assigned to the Allied line in the Luneville sector near Nancy. Two days later, Corporal Robert Bralet of the Sixth Artillery fired a 75 millimeter artillery round at the German lines, the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war.

It was while the 16th Regiment was in the Luneville sector trenches on Jan. 22, 1918 that Thompson was killed in action, among the first to fight, and the first Kendall County soldier killed in action during the war.

burson post american legion

Plano’s American Legion post is named in Leon Burson’s honor.

Leon Burson, 26, a lifelong Plano resident, was drafted in 1917. He left from Plano in September for Camp Dodge, Ia., then on to Camp Logan at Houston, Tex. to join the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment. The 1st Illinois had served in the Spanish American War and later had helped U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing chase Pancho Villa along the Mexican border for three months in 1916. With the declaration of war, the 1st Illinois was federalized. Redesignated the 131st Infantry at Camp Logan, they were assigned to the 33rd “Prairie” Division.

At Camp Logan, Burson was assigned to the Medical Corps. In early May 1918 after finishing rigorous training, the regiment traveled to New Jersey, boarded the ocean liner SS Leviathan, and sailed for France on May 22. Arriving at Brest on May 30, the regiment entrained for Oisemont, where they underwent combat training under experienced British officers before joining the 3rd Corps, 4th British Army.

The 131st helped capture Hamel on the Fourth of July then helped reduce the Amiens salient. There, on Aug. 9, the regiment lost nearly 1,000 men at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood before advancing to help take the Etinchem Spur on Aug. 13.

Burson, behind the lines, was stocking an ambulance for the front a day later when he was killed by an artillery shell, the second Kendall County man killed in action in the Great War.

“It is my sad duty to write you of your son Leon’s death, the evening of August 14, 1918 due to the explosion of a shell,” Lt. Herbert Pease wrote to Burson’s parents. “Death no doubt was instant. He was on duty, having talked to me only two or three minutes before. He was buried today at Vayux, France under the direction of our Chaplain, Lieut. Egerton, in the American cemetery.” Years after the war, Plano’s American Legion Post would be named for Leon Burson.

Archie Lake grew up in Oswego but the young man and his family traveled to find work, eventually winding up in Hinsdale. When the U.S. entered the war, Lake, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned to the 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, in the newly formed 6th Marine Regiment.

Lake, Archie KIA 97th 6th retouch

An Oswego native, the U.S. Marines’ Pvt. Archie Lake was killed in action on July 19, 1918.

In France, the 6th Marines, the 5th Marines, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were formed into the 4th Brigade of the U.S. 2nd Division. Nicknamed the “Marine. Brigade,” the unit was assigned to the Toulon Sector near Verdun in March 1918. There, the 6th Marines lost 33 men, most killed when the 74th Company bivouac was attacked with poison gas on April 13.

In late May 1918, the Marine Brigade was ordered to help shore up crumbling French lines near Château-Thierry. On June 6, southwest of Belleau Wood, the 6th Marines were ordered to seize the town of Bouresches and to clear the southern half of Belleau Wood itself. The push started a bloody 40-day struggle in which the 6th lost 2,143 Marines. For their effort, the Marine units were all awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. And the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

Lake, Archie marker Osw Cem

Pvt. Archie Lake, U.S. Marine Corps,  is buried in France where he was killed in action, but his family placed this marker in the Oswego Township Cemetery in his memory.

But bloodier fighting loomed when the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack near Soissons in mid July. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve during the initial July 18 assault, but on July 19, they advanced alone through heavy artillery and machinegun fire from Vierzy toward Tigny suffering catastrophic 50-70 percent casualties in most units. First Lt. Clifton Cates (a future Marine Corps commandant) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived: “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold” he reported to his superior office at headquarters.

One of the Marines lying dead on that battlefield was Archie Lake, the last Kendall County man to die in combat in World War I.

World War I and its heroes have largely faded from modern consciousness. But brave men and women did great things in our country’s name in the muddy, bloody trenches of France. It’s a shame–bordering on a national disgrace–that, on this 100th anniversary of the end of that devastating conflict, our nation’s elected leader decided to disregard his duty to honor of all those who perished during the conflict—including three young Kendall County men,.

 

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When it comes to school districts, the name’s the thing…

So we had a big hoohah going on here in my once little town of Oswego a few years ago. This post is going to be super-local, so if you’re not interested in really, really local history and want to go somewhere else today, I completely understand.

Hoohahs come and go, of course, and there are lots of them in any community. But here I’m specifically talking here about a former school superintendent’s brainstorm that changing the school district’s name by leaving “Oswego,” “school,” and “district” out of it would be a boffo idea.

Of course, the district’s official, legal name—Oswego Community Unit School District 308—did not change. So what the superintendent was really talking about was a school district nickname. What that meant in practice was changing the name atop school district stationery, on school buses, on the district’s web site, and the like. Things that cost money to change.

The preferred new nickname? SD308.

One school board member, a newcomer to the community like most all board members in recent years, announced at back then that Oswego had never been part of the district’s name and that “‘Oswego’ got interjected somewhere in there.”

Well, no, that was definitely not the case. Let’s get into the Way Back Machine and figure out what actually happened, shall we?

Back in May 1961, voters living inside the boundaries of Oswego Community High School District 300 voted to consolidate with Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8, creating a community unit school district educating children from first through 12th grades. That fall, kindergarten would be added, but at the time of the referendum, it was just first through 12th.

According to the June 22 Oswego Ledger:

“An election will be held Saturday, June 24, to select seven members for the board of education of the newly formed Oswego Community District No. 308. Four of the members of the new board must be from Oswego Township and three members must be from the other townships–Wheatland, Bristol, and NaAuSay.”

But wait…what was the deal with that “Consolidated” word in the elementary school district’s name? Did the 1961 election consolidate a consolidation? Why, yes, yes it did.

1880 abt Old Stone School

Oswego’s Old Stone School at Tyler and Monroe streets was built about 1855, probably with some of the first real estate tax money levied for education purposes in the community. The building was gutted by fire in 1885. (from a stereopticon view in the Little White School Museum collection)

To explain that, we’ve got to delve into the Illinois public education historical weeds.

School consolidation in Illinois has a long history, and Kendall County’s communities and myriad school district’s followed the statewide activities in that regard.

The earliest schools were formed by subscription during the pioneer era of the 1830s and 1840s. Groups of farm neighbors or village residents would take subscriptions to build and otherwise maintain a school building and hire a teacher. In 1855, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing levying property taxes to finance the cost of operating public schools.

Small rural school districts proliferated, each supporting a single, one-room school that educated students in first through eighth grades. In general, taxpayers’ farm homes were located no farther away from these rural schools than about a mile and a half (which sort of puts the lie to great-granddad’s claim that he walked 10 miles to school, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways).

In towns, elementary (or common) schools were often combined with “academies,” which were the name for high schools of the day. Academies were also the junior colleges of the era. About the only students who went on from elementary school to the upper grades were those who were planning to teach or the vanishingly small number of students who planned to actually attend college.

1894 Grove School

One of my all-time favorite school photos is this 1894 image of Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, with the kids dressed for a Mother Goose play. (Little White School Museum collection)

But times changed, and gradually it was realized that more education was a better, not to mention increasingly necessary, thing for all concerned. High schools replaced academies in the 1880s, and very gradually the numbers of students going on beyond eighth grade began to climb.

None of my grandparents, for instance, attended high school, and only two even graduated from eighth grade. My father graduated from eighth grade, but my mother graduated high school. Both my sisters graduated high school and went on to attend nurse’s training and became registered nurses, and both of my children graduated college—they’re all sort of a microcosm of how education has evolved since the early years of the 20th Century.

But back to consolidation. Here in Kendall County, Yorkville was the first area to consolidate some of its schools, and that in 1919. Consolidation bubbled under for several years, inhibited by the Great Depression. But after World War II, with the county’s population rising in some areas and the need for better education prompted by the new Cold War, nuclear weapons, and (literally) rocket science, consolidation began in earnest.

1925 abt Walker School

Walker School, at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego, was consolidated with the nearby Marysville and Gaylord schools in 1941, the first consolidation in the Oswego School District. The building, converted into a private home, still stands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first consolidations of the 1940s involved one-room school districts. Many districts only enrolled a handful of students each year, sometimes less than a half-dozen. That made hiring a teacher and maintaining a building expensive for local taxpayers, as did complying with new rules and regulations concerning such things as state-mandated courses of study and facilities requirements.

In 1941, the voters living in the contiguous Gaylord, Walker, and Wilcox one-room school districts voted to consolidate into a single district, to be called Consolidated District 5, with all the students moved to the Walker School. The other two buildings were closed and sold. The Gaylord building was moved into Oswego and remodeled into a private home, while the Wilcox School was moved a few miles away to Wolf’s Crossing Road and also turned into a private residence.

Then in the summer of 1948, a further consolidation took place in the region inside the Oswego High School District, a 68 square mile region extending from the Kane-Kendall line north of Oswego south all the way to Caton Farm Road. As the Kendall County Record reported:

“Voters yesterday in the Oswego-NaAuSay area approved the establishment of a community consolidated grade school district consisting of all of Oswego township, about two-thirds of NaAuSay, and four sections of Kendall township. There were 270 votes for and 178 against the proposition. The voters in the Village of Oswego approved the proposition 94 to 16, and those outside the village 176 to 162.

“The new district combines the Oswego, Squires, Wormley, Willow Hill, Walker, Harvey, Russell, Cutter, McCauley, Grove, Union, and Marysville districts. The assessed valuation will be $12 million and the grade school enrollment is 343. Board members for the new district will be elected July 17.”

1958 East View School cropped

The first new building constructed by Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 after the district’s creation in 1948 was East View School, opened in Oswego in the fall of 1957, originally housing students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Eventually, the building was enlarged to house some 1,400 kindergarten through fifth grade students. (Little White School Museum collection)

Eventually, a few more parcels were added to the elementary district from Bristol Township, which borders Oswego Township to the west, Aurora Township in Kane County, which borders Oswego Township to the north, and Wheatland Township in Will County, which borders Oswego Township to the east, creating the entire “consolidated” elementary district, mirroring the bounds of the high school district.

The Oswego districts, of course, were far from the only ones consolidating during the 1940s and 1950s. Starting in the 1920s, a series of state laws and regulation changes began forcing one-room school districts to merge to create larger tax bases to permit better facilities and more advanced curricula.

First was the “Standard School” drive of the 1930s. According to the Oct. 8, 1930 Record:

“A standard school is one which meets the requirements for a good school with the sanitation requirements met and with the right kind of a [school] house, the right kind of furnishings and equipment, the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of behavior and work by the pupils. A superior school is one which has gone farther in its efforts to offer something better to the community.”

The Record noted that only six county schools had been awarded the “Standard” ranking that year: the Squires, Millbrook, Kendall, McCauley, Fourth Ward, and Jones schools, adding that:

“Several other schools are very close to meeting the requirements. Among them are the Wormley, Boomer, Needham, Union, Bronk, Weeks, Scofield, Naden, Keck, Stephens, Pletcher, Plattville, Cassem, Brown, Wynne, Bell, Fox, Cutter, Walker, Willow Hill, Bethel, and Lisbon Center. Some of these schools lack only a well or some equipment, which will be secured this year.”

By the late 1940s, the costs of operating one-room schools with tiny enrollments led to the closure of many with their students transferred to adjoining districts. As the Record explained on Sept. 11, 1946:

“Thirty-three Kendall county one- and two-room schools opened their fall terms last Tuesday. Teachers have been provided for all pupils only by closing the doors of 17 buildings and transferring the children from these districts to neighboring schools. As a result, school enrollments are much larger. Schools which formerly had only enough pupils for a game of marbles will now be able to choose up sides for a ball game. One school, in district No. 5 south of Oswego, has 28 enrolled and half of the schools operating have 16 or more pupils. Three schools have but eight, the smallest number this year.”

1957 Church School exterior

Church School, where the author attended grades 1-3, was the last one-room rural school to close in the Oswego School District. It closed in the spring of 1958.

In 1947, the Kendall County School Survey Committee recommended that the county’s 54 existing school districts be consolidated into just four unit districts based around the county’s four high school districts that would educate children from elementary through high school.

In June 1948, building on the county survey committee’s recommendations, 11 rural districts, plus the district in Oswego announced plans to ask voters to consolidate, as noted above. As the Record pointed out:

“Present limitations in taxes would require tax rate elections in some of the present districts before they could operate another year.”

Voters throughout the county were engaged in similar consolidation elections in Yorkville, Lisbon, Newark, and other communities.

The era of the one-room school was dealt a further blow with new requirements mandated by the Illinois School Code requiring that after June 30, 1949 public schools have at least 10 pupils in average daily attendance; after June 20, 1951, at least 12 pupils, and after June 30, 1953 at least 15 pupils.

By the late 1950s, the era of the one-room school in Kendall County was over. The last one-room building in the Oswego Elementary School District closed in 1957.

1961 Sept BH School

Boulder Hill Elementary School, whose construction was partially financed by Boulder Hill Subdivision developer Don L. Dise, was the first school built under the direction of brand new Oswego Community Consolidated Unit District 308. The new school opened in the fall of 1961.

And then in 1961, voters approved consolidating Oswego’s already-consolidated elementary district and its high school district, to create Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

So what was the deal with changing the district’s name? Well, according to those new school board members and the new (at the time) superintendent, it didn’t seem fair to have “Oswego” in the name when students from several other municipalities attend the district’s schools.

But that has always been the case. Starting with the high school district’s establishment in the 1930s, folks with Aurora, Plainfield, Yorkville, Oswego, Minooka, and Montgomery mailing addresses sent their kids north, south, east, and west to Oswego to school, depending on where their homes were located. It’s hard to see how much has changed today, even though now we’ve also got kids with Joliet addresses coming to Oswego to school.

After a relatively short time of anger simmering under the surface, a group of local residents, including a retired school superintendent and a retired varsity coach, got together to agitate for changing the district’s advertised name back to one with “Oswego” in it. And in that effort, they were recently successful. Adding “Oswego” back to the district’s identity has begun, and it’s gradually come to the point that now when you drive around the community and you pass a school bus, it will likely have “Oswego” in the name on the side.

The schools here have had a long and winding, but interesting, road from yesterday to today. If the district’s name does anything, it anchors the schools in a region of the Fox Valley, which provides a sense of identity that SD308 (two other Illinois school districts have the same numerical designation) did not.

For this long-time community resident and 1964 OHS grad, it’s good to see “Oswego” back on the district’s buses.

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