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My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently 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 clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both 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 all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

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. 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.

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.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

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.

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Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither 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 that 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.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better 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

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

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. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was 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 cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. 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.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and 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.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (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. For instance, 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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Filed under Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Unintended consequences…

For some reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy connected with global climate change.

Well over 90 percent of climatologists say it’s proven science that us humans have greatly contributed to the warming of the earth’s climate since 1900, and even the big oil companies’ scientists told their bosses what was happening decades ago. In fact, there’s an interesting investigation going on right now where the attorneys general of several states are trying to determine whether Exxon misled the company’s investors about the issue.

But a lot of people still don’t buy the facts that have been laid out, mostly because those folks at Exxon didn’t only hide the facts their own scientists dug up from their own investors, but they also apparently bankrolled climate change denier individuals and organizations, muddying the waters for lots of us.

It’s not that hard to figure out what’s happening, though. Each recent year sets a new record as being the hottest on record, and individual months are regularly setting temperature records, too. But it’s not hard to find someone to dispute the fact of global climate change—although there aren’t a lot of them, the professional deniers are a pretty loud and determined bunch, once again proving muckraker Upon Sinclair’s dictum that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If you’re a seed catalog saver, you can get an easily understood look into what’s happening. Just look at how those hardiness zone maps keep changing. The zones where certain plants can grow keep steadily moving north, indicating average temperatures are continuing to rise.

Walleye

Walleye, one of Wisconsin’s most sought-after gamefish, are becoming rare in some of the state’s most popular resort areas, at least partly due to global climate change.

Up in northern Wisconsin, the change in the climate means some of the fisheries up there are changing, too. In the Minocqua area, largemouth bass, which is generally considered a warmer weather species, have begun to take over some of the lakes in that region. The Wisconsin DNR figures that the growing largemouth population is feeding on walleye fry, thus leading to a decrease in walleyes. And that’s bad for the resort industry up there because walleyes are a big, big draw for anglers. To try to do something about the situation, the DNR has banned keeping any walleyes caught for a five-year period, supposedly to give the species a chance to rebound against largemouth predation.

I’m pretty sure it won’t work. Those largemouth that are suddenly so prevalent aren’t there by happenstance; they’re there because the water’s warmer there now on average, making it a friendlier habitat for bass. Helping the walleye population by increasing their numbers through lack of angler harvest isn’t going to do a thing to cool off the water in Minocqua area lakes. But since the DNR is now prohibited from discussing climate change’s effects on Wisconsin wildlife, it’s going to be interesting to see how the subject is handled going forward. Because you can bet this is just the tip of this particular rhetorical iceberg.

When you think about unintended consequences, global climate change is this era’s prime example. When the Industrial Age got really going, I doubt anyone thought that burning all that coal and, later, oil was going to have a negative impact on the entire earth. Just like adding lead to gasoline, which was designed to make internal combustion engines run smoother and more efficiently, the ultimate impact was to inflict lead poisoning on several generations of Americans. The outcome of that was likely the spike in crime rates in the 1970s, according to some who’ve studied the topic. Banning leaded gasoline may well be the reason violent crime has been declining since the 1970s.

It’s when we fiddle with the earth’s ecology that those unintended consequences seem to have their biggest effects. The folks in Wisconsin are trying their best to do something about a process over which they have little control by doing something over which they do have at least a little influence, although it’s probably futile. It probably won’t comfort them to know that we’ve been messing with fish populations for generations, sometimes with negative implications that didn’t show up for decades.

German carp

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

The lowly carp is prime example number one of that. We take these ubiquitous rough, annoying fish for granted these days. But they only got in our rivers and creeks because the U.S. Government put them there in the first place, hoping to provide a useful, marketable species to benefit everyone.

So they imported a bunch of them from Germany with plans to stock them in streams the next year. They were considered so valuable that they used the reflecting pool on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to house them over the winter. Then in the spring they stocked them all over the place.

I’ve already written about the general reaction to this bit of ecological sabotage, noting the reaction was far from unanimously positive. But, as luck would have it, carp were stocked at about the same time streams in long-settled parts of the country were being stressed beyond their limits with almost unbelievable amounts of pollution, from raw human and animal waste to manufacturing byproducts, from coking mill waste to waste from coal gas plants. The effect of chemical poisons on streams was amplified by increasing amounts of agricultural runoff that was containing more and more silt as unwise farming practices created erosion.

As their gravel-bottomed spawning grounds were covered with silt the oxygen content of water in polluted streams drastically declined due to huge increases in chemical and human waste, game fish populations catastrophically declined.

Enter those carp. They were far more adaptable to filthy water conditions and positively thrived on the muddy stream bottoms that were being manufactured by a near-total lack of any controls on pollution. And because they liked the conditions they were introduced in, they thrived—and therefore were blamed for creating the conditions rather than being lauded for making use of them, much like those largemouth bass up in northern Wisconsin are being blamed today for decreasing walleye populations.

A classic example of blaming the messenger—carp—for stream quality happened on the Rock River in southern Wisconsin back in the 1970s. The Rock has several dams up there creating lots of recreational fishing at Beloit, Janesville, and other towns along the river’s course. By the ‘70s, some of those impoundments had gathered a lot of sediment and silt from agriculture runoff, and while carp were flourishing, gamefish were not. So the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided to try poisoning the all the fish in one of those impoundments, the idea being that without carp rooting around the bottom and creating silt-laden water that gamefish didn’t like.

So that’s what they did. And it worked. The impoundment was cleanses of carp—and all the other fish as well, and that had the effect of clearing the water right up. Residents living there were ecstatic—you could actually see the bottom again!

But getting rid of the carp didn’t get rid of the sediment, which was extremely rich in nutrients thanks to runoff from all the farm fields through which the river ran. And as soon as the water clarified, sunlight finally got down to the bottom, creating a veritable algae explosion. The stuff grew inches thick on the surface, died, and sank to the bottom where it decomposed, sucking whatever oxygen still remained out of the water, creating a smelly, slimy mess. Which made residents far from ecstatic. It took a frantic DNR quite a while to get the situation stabilized and to try to reverse it because the agriculture interests were not interested in doing what needed to be done to reduce runoff from their fields.

The main point the ecology movement tried to get across to people when it got started is that almost everything in the natural world is connected one way or another. And sometimes, because much of the time we neither understand nor recognize them in the first place, those connections come back to bite us when we mess with one part or another without careful consideration first.

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A tale of two towns…

Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.

My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.

2017 10-10 Paul fishing

The sunset on Butternut Lake on Oct. 10 proved to be a spectacular one as we attempted to invite a few walleyes for supper.

We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.

As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.

Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.

The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.

Paper Mill

The Flambeau River Papers mill still dominates Park Falls’ downtown while providing jobs for residents.

But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.

That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.

Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.

2017 10-6 Fall color at the lake.jpg

Autumn color was hitting the peak on Oct. 6 when I snapped this shot down towards Butternut Lake.

The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.

Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.

In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.

2008 Oswego look E from W bank

These days, there are more traffic signals on Oswego, Illinois’ Washington Street than in all of Park Falls, Wisconsin—one of the prices residents pay for the community’s growth.

Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.

Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.

Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.

 

 

 

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

Substituting electronic for personal contact is nothing new…

Got back from our Undaunted Courage trip out west all in one piece, despite a battle with bronchitis. The good folks at the walk-in clinic in Fergus Falls, Minnesota fixed me up with a supply of tetracycline and so we were good to go for the trip back home.

We planned to make a brief stop at our fishing cabin up in northern Wisconsin on the way back, and since the route there from Fergus Falls took us right past the Norske Nook in Hayward, we couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping for supper and pie.

When we got home, I had plenty of time to go back over the things I missed while we were on the road. While I was doing that, an article in the September issue of The Atlantic caught my eye. Written a couple months ago by Jean M. Twenge, it asked the question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

The kicker to the title of Twenge’s piece, “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis,” lays out her basic thesis, which is that teens are in danger of becoming mentally and physically isolated because of the impact of smartphones on their lives.

Twenge starts her piece by recounting a conversation with the teenage child of a friend. The kid told Twenge that she spent most of her summer hanging out along, in her room, in constant communication with friends via social media. “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people,” the teen told her.

Which leads to several hundred words of increasing concern that riff off a theme laid out in a sentence in the piece: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

1911 Oswego Phone switchboard

In 1911, the Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in Oswego handled all the village’s calls with just two operators.

It’s entirely possible—even probable—that’s Twenge’s concerns are valid. But it’s likely panic isn’t necessarily something we need to do. In fact, it might also help put things in a little perspective to know that telecommunications revolutions have been gobsmacking technologically punch-drunk folks here in the U.S. for a long, long time.

In the early 1850s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad extended its tracks across the Fox River at Aurora and then west across northern Kendall County on the line’s way to Burlington, Iowa. It didn’t take long for telegraph lines to follow the tracks west, thus tying the county in with the rest of the country and the world. But the line ran a couple miles west of both Oswego and Yorkville, so it still took messages a while to get to town from stations along the line. Not until 1870, with the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch was built connecting towns along the Fox River did the bulk of Kendall residents find themselves living in towns with direct telegraph service to the rest of the world.

In the spring of 1870, the Great Western Telegraph Company strung their lines south and west of Aurora past Oswego and Yorkville and then on to Plano. On May 19, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, reported that “Oswego is to be connected with the rest of the world by telegraph. A gentleman representing the Great Western Telegraph Company was here the other day disposing of the stock to our citizens and making preliminary arrangements for an office.”

Then in December 1870, the CB&Q built their own lines, following the Fox River Branch’s route all the way south to Streator. By the end of January, Rank could report: “The telegraph wire is up and we are in connection with the world at large.”

It was an immediate convenience for just about everyone from law enforcement, which used it to quickly track down horse thieves, to just regular folks. In December 1878, Tom Miller received word from England that he needed to go back to his native land to deal with settling an estate. He accordingly set off from Oswego for New York and was about to leave on a ship across the Atlantic when the British Counsel in New York telegraphed him at Oswego that due to fast-evolving circumstances, he should delay his trip. But Miller wasn’t in Oswego; he was in New York. So the message was immediately sent back east along the line, reaching him in time for him to get off the ship before it sailed for England.

It took not many more years for telephones to pop up here and there in Kendall County. Originally, they were two-party, personal affairs used to connect a business owner’s home with his store. By the late 1800s, telephone wires were beginning to stretch across the region, tying whole communities into a telecommunications network that was rapidly spanning the nation.

In December 1897, just as Oswego got connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”

Cutter insulator

Oswegoan Scott Cutter’s tree-mounted insulator helped telephone companies extend service to rural areas without having to install utility poles.

By June 1900, Rank was predicting telephones would not only affect townspeople, but would also have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

And indeed, on June 16, 1901, the Record’s correspondent for the Specie Grove neighborhood along Minkler Road south of Oswego noted with some amazement: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

County residents weren’t only taking advantage of the telephone’s communications advantages; some were turning their inventive genius towards finding ways to make a buck off the technology itself. Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, for instance, invented an insulator for telephone wires that didn’t require telephone poles. As wires were strung through rural areas, it was a lot more cost effective if they could be hung from trees instead of installing utility poles—especially in that day when holes for them had to be hand-dug.

1903 abt N on Main from Wash wires

By the time his photo was taken about 1903 in downtown Oswego, utility wires, from overhead electric lines for the interurban trolley to telephone and electric service lines were starting to blot out the sky.

Gradually, even most rural areas were wired for service. In 1900, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County near Sandwich.

The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotting their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century.

Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries, which record a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town and for pleasure.

But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed in their farm house, the swirl of face-to-face visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells write about talking on the phone with friends and relatives.

So like all new inventions, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen consequences for area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Oswego’s Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards figuring out how to make a buck off improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until after they’d occurred. Although you could make a good case for the impact of television on society, I believe it would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.

Pretty sure we can already answer the question of that Atlantic article and figure that no, smartphones won’t destroy a generation. After all, we’ve survived the positive predictions of television, video games, and Pokemon Go destroying generations past. But given the way these things seem to creep up on us, I can hardly wait to find out how the next big thing in communications will disrupt my life.

 

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Filed under Business, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

I was reading The Des Moines Register a couple weeks ago, and came across an editorial that immediately caught my eye. “To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa farmer: Shifting from two-crop cycle can produce profits and environmental benefits.”

Watkins

Farmer Seth Watkins (left) and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Lieberman in a stand of native prairie grasses that help control erosion and also enhance the soil. (National Public Radio photo by John Ydstie)

The piece profiled Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who has hit on a new way to farm that he says both frees farmers from the Midwest’s near universal and rigid corn-soybean two-crop system. Watkins, instead of going all-in on either two-crop grain farming or raising livestock, does both in interesting ways.

Watkins does grow corn but he also raises oats, alfalfa and other cover crops. He grazes his 600-head herd of cattle on pastureland, and he’s set aside about 400 acres of his land as restored to prairie, ponds, and stream protection.

But he’s not only engaged in building up his farmland, but he says he’s also been seeing better financial returns on his farming operations.

Watkins’ new methods are not simply a success in his own mind, either. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a new report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits, that suggests adopting Watkins’ methods can help build up soil and decrease water runoff and the resulting pollution. Now you will probably contend that the Union of Concerned Scientists is sort of a far-left group—and you’re right—but even far-lefties are right sometimes–or should I say correct. Especially when their research is backed up by studies from a place like Iowa State University.

An ISU study compared a typical Midwest two-year, corn-soybean crop rotation to three- and four-year rotations that added such crops as oats, red clover, alfalfa and other crops. The longer rotations of corn and soybeans actually increased their yields while also producing surprisingly large decreases in runoff of agricultural herbicides (between 81 and 96 percent), along with requiring a lot less (a decrease of between 43 and 57 percent) nitrogen fertilizer—a big money-saver.

So what Watkins and his fellow travelers appear to have done is reinvent the same kind of diversified farming that was the norm until the adoption of the modern corn-soybean system.

If you’ve read many of the posts here at History on the Fox, or if you read my weekly “Reflections” columns in Shaw Media’s Kendall County NOW newspapers, you already know that I regularly lament the death of diversified farming.

It keeps receding farther and farther into the mists of time, but when I was a little kid growing up on a farm about 10 miles east and a little south of where I’m sitting at my computer typing this post, diversified farming was ubiquitous; it was pretty much the definition of farming.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

In the summer of 1947, Russell Rink bales hay on a farm in east Oswego Township. At the time, hay crops such as alfalfa, clover, and timothy were grown on nearly every farm in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

My dad raised corn and soybeans, but he also raised oats, alfalfa, clover, and timothy, rotating those crops with a bit of pasture so that the soil had a chance to rest. While the soybeans were all sold as grain, some of the corn was fed to his cattle and the rest went to market. The oats, too, were sold as grain, but a fair portion of them were ground into coarse flour which was mixed with the milk that had been separated from the cream produced by our Guernsey cow, to make the “slop” that his feeder pigs seemed to love so much.

My mother traded the eggs her chickens produced for groceries at Michaels Brothers Grocery Store in Montgomery, and my parents sold the excess cream our cow produced at the creamery in Yorkville.

In those days, chemical fertilizer was only just becoming common. Instead of that, my dad spread the manure produced by the cattle and hogs he fed and the chickens my mother raised on his fields. In that way, the grain and hay crops fed to the livestock, and which they then processed into manure, was returned to the land in a pretty efficient cycle.

In 1950 when I was four years old, the federal agricultural census showed there were nearly 1,100 farms in Kendall County, of which 861 reported having some feeder cattle, 694 had at least one milk cow, and 741 reported raising hogs. All that livestock produced a LOT of manure, which was then returned to the land in lieu of chemical fertilizer.

R.D. Gates at home on his Minkler Road farm, ca 1895

R.D. Gates (center) proudly shows off his feeder hogs as his wife and daughter and hired man look in in this photo taken sometime in the fall of 1897. Most Kendall County farms once raised livestock along with grain. (Little White School Museum collection)

By 2012, the number of farms in Kendall County had dropped to 364, although to be fair they’d just about doubled in size. But there had also been a cataclysmic change in what was being produced on those farms. Of the 364, only 42 reported have some cattle around the place, just two had milk cows, and only nine were raising hogs.

In fact, just about the only reason most grain farmers raise any livestock at all these days is either as a hobby or because their kids are in 4-H, and with the aging of the farm population, that’s an increasingly rare thing as well.

In these modern times, were facing a real agricultural conundrum. Fewer and fewer farms are family-owned, and more and more are corporate operations. And as we all should know by now, corporations care about only one thing: The bottom line. Unlike family farmers who contemplate handing their operations down to the next generation, and so often feel it’s incumbent on them to take care of the land they farm, corporate interests are focused on profits, almost always on short-term profits which are often detrimental not only to the long-term interests of their firms, but sometimes to their entire industries.

So will Watkins’ ‘new’ farming method catch on? It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy, either. On many farms, the infrastructure that was formerly common—hog houses, barns, chicken houses, and other buildings—are long gone, replaced by grain storage bins and towering machine sheds built to house gigantic modern farm equipment. Raising livestock calls for different skills, too, and requires a lot more time. And is there a market for the oats and the alfalfa, timothy, and clover that my dad grew as fodder for his feeder cattle? Not unless more farmers decided to diversify.

But, maybe. Family farming operations will likely be more amenable to trying it because of their mindset, but maybe the corporations will surprise us all and decide to look beyond next quarter’s profits. Not likely, but possible…

 

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You can go home again; you just can’t stay

We were driving past, the door was open, so we decided to stop in.

I hadn’t been inside our old farmhouse since my family moved out right after Christmas, 1954.

1950 Butcher Place

“The Butcher Place” where my folks farmed during the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

My father’s ankylosing spondylitis was getting worse, as was my asthma, so my parents decided, early in 1954, to retire from farming, and move into town. We had the farm sale that fall, and spent a lot of time cleaning up and remodeling the “new” house in town. My great-grandparents had it built in 1908 by my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, one of Oswego’s better carpenters and contractors. Still owned by my grandparents in late 1954, it was vacant, the tenants having moved out.

My folks decided the move would be made over Christmas vacation. It wouldn’t affect my sister, who was a senior at Oswego High School, other than making the trip to school a lot shorter. For me, though, it meant a big change, going from a rural school with grades 1-3 and our single teacher (Mrs. Comerford) all in one room, to the imposing Red Brick School in town. There would be more kids in my new third grade classroom in town than the total enrollment of my old school.

1957 Church School exterior

The entire enrollment at Church School, where I spent first, second, and half of third grade, was less than the number of students in my third grade classroom in town. All three grades were taught in one large room. (Little White School Museum collection)

The students at Church School, the one-room school I attended, gave me a nice going-away party, and I remember visiting every one of the buildings on the farmstead during those December days before we finally left to live in Oswego.

Move the clock ahead from December 1954 to 1990. After attending my uncle’s funeral at the cemetery just down the road from our old farm, my family was driving back home, and our route took us past the old home place. The farm was being subdivided at the time, and the barn, crib, and chicken house had burned down the previous year. The three big cottonwood trees still stood out along the road and the house still stood, though not in the greatest condition. As we drove past, we noticed the front door was ajar. My wife and two children insisted that we stop, and, the lure being too great, I agreed.

Walking up the front steps, the memories started returning. The concrete and stone front porch itself was where I knocked two front teeth out one year on the eve of the annual Scotch Church Pancake Supper. I can still remember not being able to eat my usual amount of hotcakes due to that sore mouth.

The front door was indeed ajar–which was in itself pretty odd. We never used that door, and I don’t ever remember it being open when we lived there. In any case, it was a terrible door that let in about as much cold winter wind closed as it would have if we ever had opened it. The house, built in the early 1930s, was notoriously drafty, especially around that front door.

1947 Roger takes a dip

The author enjoys a cooling dip in the Matile family pool during the summer of 1948.

After 35 years, the inside of the house still seemed familiar, though. The front door opened directly into the living room, and that was where the radio was when we lived there–a large console job on which I listened to Victor Borge and “The Lone Ranger” and “Superman,” and my mother caught the soaps as she sewed and otherwise worked in the early afternoon. Later, our first television set was located at the other end of the living room, and I remember my amazement watching, for the first time, Superman (George Reeves) actually fly.

The memories were so vivid that I could almost see my father sitting in his chair, reading the Chicago American or the Prairie Farmer.

1952 Roger & Rob

The author and Rob Chada on the front porch, keeping our strength up with occasional handfuls of Sugar Frosted Flakes.

The dining room was larger and the kitchen smaller than I remembered. Both were in pretty rough shape, the house having obviously become the site of a number of teenage beer parties since it was abandoned. We always ate in the kitchen, the dining room used only when company came over. My mother used the dining room as her sewing room. I remember my teenaged sisters arriving home on the school bus and hustling into the dining room to catch my mother up on all the amazing things that had happened that day in far-off Oswego while my mother continued running her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine.

Upstairs, my sisters’ room had been divided into two smaller bedrooms, and my bedroom had become an upstairs bathroom. The stairs still went up from a door in the living room, and then took a 90-decree tum at the landing. That landing was the site of an oft-told family story: My sisters and town cousins were taking turns jumping down from the top of the stairs to the landing, squealing with much hilarity and causing a lot of thumping and other noise. After telling them to stop several times, my usually calm father finally had enough, and angrily yelled up, “If you kids do that just one more time…” Whereupon my most audacious girl cousin seriously told her accomplices, “Oh goodie! We get to do it one more time!”

Out the back door, the old concrete stoop had been covered by a small wooden deck. I remember riding my tricycle up the small stretch of sidewalk from the driveway to the stoop hundreds of times, it seemed, a day–it was the only hard surfaced area on the whole farm, other than part of the cattle yard out next to the barn. But that was usually occupied by livestock.

We checked the basement, but it was flooded with a foot or two of water–construction of the subdivision had probably blocked the basement drain. But the old cistern was still there, as was what appeared to be the original furnace, somewhat upgraded. The old cob-fired water heater was no longer there, but the basement bathroom–the only one we had when I was a child–still sported the same fixtures.

The house had originally been built without an indoor bathroom. My parents were living there when rural electrification came through and allowed a pressurized water system in the house, and the possibility of a bathroom. There were only three bedrooms, all of which were needed, so it was decided to put the bathroom down the basement. To heat the water, a water heater fueled by corncobs was installed. Around the age of 5 or so, it became my job to get the water heater going, especially on Saturdays when my sisters were getting ready for dates. It was a learning experience, and one of the things I learned was NOT to use one of my sisters’ frilly nylon undergarments to protect my hand from getting burned on the handle of the water heater’s firebox. It was quite remarkable to watch the garment melt onto the handle–as was my sister’s anger when she discovered the wreckage.

The basement sink where my dad washed and shaved was gone, though the spigots remained. I couldn’t see in the dark basement if the Burma-Shave remnants were still on the ceiling above it: One hectic evening, Dad rushed downstairs to quickly shave, vigorously shook the Burma-Shave can, and shot a burst into his palm. The cream hit his palm, ricocheted at a sharp angle, and, to his amazement, splashed on the ceiling. The splash was still there when we moved.

Outside, the farmstead was in sad shape. The barn, crib, and big chicken house were gone, as were most of the trees. The folks who owned the farm when we lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Butcher, were tree fanatics. Every time he visited, it seemed, Mr. Butcher planted another one, much to my dad’s distress since he had to mow around the forest that was gradually being created.

1950 Hayride on dad's bobsled

An old-fashioned hayride at the Butcher Place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled, with the tool shed in the background. This ride seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

The old garage, which we seldom used, was still there, as was the tool shed that housed my dad’s farm equipment, although the outhouse that used to be tipped over every Halloween by mysterious forces was not. My son, used to his uncle’s sprawling buildings and big farm equipment, remarked how small the tool shed was, and I had to explain that in the 1950s, farm equipment was smaller than now, and farmers generally had a lot less of it. By the 1990s, farm equipment had already grown to the size of 1950s earthmoving equipment.

The things that made it our farm were all gone, though. The milk separator and the egg crates and scale in the basement, the two tractors and the old green and yellow four-row John Deere com planter in the tool shed, the old truck parked in the crib, and the bobsled running gear that provided so many entertaining hours during sleigh ride parties in the winter had all disappeared. In fact, the entire method of farming in which my father engaged had died by 1990. Our diversified farm grew corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa and other forage crops along with hogs, beef cattle, and chickens. My mother traded eggs for groceries in town, and we butchered a steer and a hog annually for our own consumption. By 1990, that kind of farming was long gone, replaced by specialized grain or livestock farmers.

But while so many familiar things were gone, it was remarkable how familiar the old place still felt. I knew what was left of it wouldn’t be there much longer–and it wasn’t–but it was especially nice to have that one last brief visit with my childhood out on the farm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1949 Fox River Branch steam loco

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

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

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

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

1890 abt Depot

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

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

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

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

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

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

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main

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

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

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

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

1915 Trolley AE&C livery

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

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

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

1942 Dinky at Streator

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

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

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

Dinky plan

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

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

1943 Train-Dinky Wreck 2 B&W

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

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

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

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

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