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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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Filed under Architecture, Farming, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1949 Fox River Branch steam loco

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

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

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

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

1890 abt Depot

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

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

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

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

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

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

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main

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

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

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

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

1915 Trolley AE&C livery

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

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

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

1942 Dinky at Streator

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

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

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

Dinky plan

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

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

1943 Train-Dinky Wreck 2 B&W

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

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

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

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

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

Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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Filed under Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Marking change in Kendall County during African American History Month

One Monday night in May 2004, when I was still covering the Oswego School District Board for the Ledger-Sentinel, I sat at the press table during the board meeting, resigned to listen to yet another staff presentation, this one on the program—English Language Learners—designed to help students who live in homes where English is not the first language spoken.

What really got my attention during the teachers’ presentation was the revelation that more than 50 different languages were being spoken in homes throughout the school district. If a more dramatic example was needed that Oswegoans were no longer living in the relatively isolated small farming town of my youth, this was certainly it. Nowadays, I’ve found by a bit of digging, fewer non-English languages are being spoken at homes throughout the school district, but the number is still more than 30.

Times in our little corner of the Midwest had actually begun changing many years before 2004, of course. By even the 1970s Kendall County had gone a long way past the era—which extended as late as the 1950s—when Kendall County residential developers added covenants prohibiting blacks and Jews, and sometimes Catholics, from buying homes they were building. And the era of the official and unofficial “sunset laws” that prohibited blacks from being in area towns after the sun set had also been as quietly discarded by that time as they had been instituted in the first place.

The interesting thing to me, as I grew up in and then made my home in Kendall County— and learned about the racism that was downplayed so effectively in our history classes—was not the casual racism that existed virtually everywhere; I expected that. Rather it was that the county, almost from the time of its earliest permanent setters, was home to varying numbers of minority residents who were, for the most part, accepted on their own merits by their white neighbors.

Among the settlers who arrived in Kendall County in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray and Elias Dial, all of whom settled around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area of Fox Township on the county’s west border.

The party, unlike so many other pioneers of that era who hailed from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, had come directly from the South. Also unlike settlers from other regions, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 county history, the Rev. E.W. Hicks wrote that the families “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is unlikely either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when they arrived on the Illinois prairies. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. And with state government still heavily influenced by slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who enjoyed owning their fellow humans. The low regard their owners had for the two women brought here in 1834 is suggested by the failure to record their surnames—assuming they had been given them by their owners in the first place, of course.

1894-grove-school

Kendall County schools, even rural one-room schools, were integrated from the beginning. In December 1894, the students and teacher from the Grove School southeast of Oswego on Grove Road, posed for the camera creating an image you would not have seen in the states of the old Confederacy, or even in many big northern cities. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the tempestuous years leading up to the Civil War, the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Illinois’ own Black Laws made it difficult, if not downright dangerous, for free black people to live in Illinois. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the county’s black population stood at six persons, two each in Oswego and Kendall townships, and one each in Fox and Franklin (later renamed Seward) townships. The county’s 1860 census recorded a single black person living in Oswego Township. Whether those counts were accurate or not is one of history’s open questions.

After the Civil War, Kendall County’s population began a long, slow decline, with the county total declining by some 3,000 residents between 1860 and 1920. The reasons for this probably ranged from the lure of cheap land west of the Mississippi to the lingering psychological effects of the Civil War.

But strangely enough, while its overall population was declining immediately after the war, the county’s black population boomed. From the single black person officially counted in 1860, Kendall’s black population grew to the official county of 54 in 1870, with nearly half of them calling NaAuSay Township, bordering Oswego Township to the south, home.

Most of NaAuSay Township’s 22 black residents lived and worked on farms in the township’s northwest corner. Thomas Lewis and his wife, Lucinda; George Washington and his wife, Emma; Neuman Northcup and wife Lusan; and Alfred Lucas and his two nearly grown children were all residents of that neighborhood. According to the census records, the value of the individual farms in this small island of black culture in overwhelmingly white Kendall County was comparable to their white neighbors, as was the value of the personal property they owned.

1903-smith-ferdinand

The son and grandson of former slaves, Ferdinand Smith was the first black student to graduate from high school in Kendall County as a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903.

As the years wore on, however, the county’s black farmers slowly left the land to live in nearby towns where they found work off the farm. The family of Nathan Hughes is a good example of the trend. Hughes, a Civil War veteran, farmed in NaAuSay Township in the Minkler Road area after the Civil War. He married into the Lucas family, which already had roots in the township’s farming community, and his children subsequently married into the Smith family, which was living in Oswego. Hughes was a respected member of the community who was an officer in the Yorkville post of the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.

In 1903, Hughes’ grandson, Ferdinand Smith, became the first black student to graduate from a Kendall County high school. As the June 1, 1903 Kendall County Record reported: “”It was the first time a class contained a colored member; the Negroes were well represented in the audience and Uncle Nathan Hughes was there to see his grandson take this important step” Then in 1904, Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, became the first black female to graduate from a Kendall County high school, followed in 1907 by their sister, Frances. Many descendants of the Hughes and Smith families still live in the Fox Valley area.

Today, Kendall County’s African-American population is substantial, most having arrived as part of the housing boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the two slave women brought here from South Carolina in 1834, though, they’ve come to the Fox Valley voluntarily. And with any luck, like the members of the extended Hughes and Smith families, their descendants will value the roots they’ve put down here.

We’ve been lucky here in the Fox Valley in recent years that, probably thanks to careful management by our political leaders, we’ve been relatively free from the plague of official violence against people of color—at least outside of Chicago, where a major clean-up seems now finally underway. As the nation observes African American History Month, it will benefit everyone to take a look back and remember that we’ve all got a stake in the future of our country in general and Kendall County in particular–no matter what the color of our skin is.

 

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“The Roaring ‘20s” wasn’t just a meaningless nickname

A lot of folks are watching with trepidation as the Trump administration gets ready to take—and I do mean “take”—office. Although losing the popular vote by a historic margin for a Presidential candidate, Trump will assume the office of President Jan. 20. After which, those of us who’ve seen a thing or two and know a thing or two will not at all be surprised if the new administration becomes one of the most corrupt in the nation’s history.

Given the President-elect’s near complete ignorance of the nation’s history, the Constitution, and how representative government works; his disdain for public ethics and morals, not to mention the nation’s democratic traditions; and his seeming ignorance of most civilized norms, it will be a miracle if corruption doesn’t become a Trump Administration byword. After all, he will have violated the Constitution as soon as he takes the oath of office, so it’s unlikely he and his minions will have much more respect for it.

The U.S. has experienced lawless times in the past, of course, sometimes starting right at the top. While U.S. Grant was an excellent general, his political skills were lacking, and he managed to pick a cabinet that was closer to a gang of thieves. Same with Warren G. Harding.

But government lawlessness is one thing, public lawlessness is another. And after World War I ended, the nation entered a protracted era of ever-increasing criminal violence. Economics were part of the problem, and so was the nation’s experiment with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. By November 1920, folks in northern Illinois were becoming ever more concerned about the crime wave that was sweeping the region.

In the Nov. 17 Kendall County Record, editor Hugh Marshall wrote: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Such concerns were the genesis for the formation of the he Illinois State Police, which was established in 1922. But even after the troopers were activated, fast cars, paved roads, and criminals who had received automatic weapons training during World War I gave bank-robbing criminal gangs a definite advantage over anything the authorities could do. At least at first.

That those worries were not overblown was illustrated by the raid on the Farmers State Bank of Millbrook in October 1929.

millbrook-bridge

The historic old Millbrook Bridge was built on the old ford across the Fox River in 1897, and at least for the present is still standing although it’s been bypassed with a change in road configuration and a new bridge.

The rural hamlet of Millbrook, located in Kendall County’s Fox Township, was settled in 1835. By 1837, families had arrived and the small community began growing. That year, Mrs. Rachel Blanding, on a tour of the west with her ailing husband, visited the Rev. Royal Bullard and William Vernon, both of whom lived in the tiny but growing community. Mrs. Blanding named Bullard’s farm Millbrook, and the name soon became applied to the entire small community.

The village itself wasn’t formally platted until the mid-1850s. Jacob Budd, born near Fishkill, New York, Nov. 11, 1811, emigrated to Kendall County in the summer of 1850, opening a store at Newark. Then in 1855, he moved to 250 acres of land in Fox Township, where he quickly became a leading citizen. Budd platted the town of Millbrook in the mid-1850s, building a store there. In 1866 when the old Mansfield Post Office was discontinued and moved to Millbrook, he became the first postmaster. And then when the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox River Valley through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, the tracks passed through Millbrook, giving the small town a boost. Budd added a grain elevator, a hotel, a lumberyard to his operations and eventually a creamery and other businesses were added, including sometime before November 1912, a bank.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 26, 1912, Charles Stuppy and John Clint used a charge of nitroglycerine to blow the bank safe open. The pair were convicted of bank robbery in January 1914 after a lengthy legal process and sent to prison.

Stuppy, though defeated was apparently unbowed, and in October 1920 he was arrested again for bank robbery, this time of the Newark Farmers State Bank.

The robberies continued of small country banks, as well as those in larger communities despite growing efforts to halt the crime wave. And then on Oct. 29, 1929 came the most brazen robbery ever of a Kendall County community.

1922-millbrook

The village of Millbrook as it was mapped for George A. Ogle & Company’s 1922 Kendall County Atlas, just seven years before a large gang of bank thieves took the town over while they robbed the community’s bank.

The well-armed gang cut the telephone lines leading into Millbrook, and then sealed off the village’s streets leading out of town, patrolling to make sure nobody escaped to raise the alarm.

Meanwhile another group broke into the bank building and blew the safe. As the Kendall County Record noted the next day, while well organized, the gang wasn’t especially skilled in blowing bank vaults: “…they were inadept enough to use ten shots of ‘nitro’ to break open the vault.” In fact, the explosions of the badly placed nitroglycerine reportedly demolished the bank building.

After collecting the loot, the gang left in a cloud of dust, never to be seen again.

While the county had experienced bank robberies before, and was destined to experience a lot more of them as time passed, this was the only time such a large and well-armed gang was able to take over an entire county town.

Record editor Marshall was alarmed at the brazen act: “The residents of Millbrook experienced the sensation of being forced into submission last Tuesday morning when their bank was looted,” Marshall wrote. “A similar circumstance may be enacted in any of our towns at any time. The affair at Millbrook should demonstrate how powerless we are against an organized band of criminals. We do not know how they were armed, but suppose they had machine guns? If some gentleman in Millbrook had been so foolhardy as to attempt to stop these marauders, he would have had his home shot to pieces.

Eventually, the banks and the communities in which they were located got better organized, with the Illinois Bankers’ Association going so far as to help banks hire a private guard force. But small, isolated rural banks like the one in Millbrook, remained vulnerable. And, indeed, the Millbrook bank was robbed again in February 1931 and yet again in July 1933. But with the last robbery, the county had become much better organized and determined. Two of the three thieves were chased and run to ground near Sugar Grove by a 500-man posse of Kendall County farmers, while the third was shot dead while trying to steal a car at Cross Lutheran Church during services on the following Sunday morning.

All of which goes to show, they didn’t call that era the “Roaring ‘20s” for nothing, even here in normally sedate, rural Kendall County.

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Elections have consequences, sometimes more profound than we imagine

As I write this, folks all over the country are voting for the next President of the United States. Here at the Matile Manse, we cast our votes a week or so ago at the Oswego Village Hall, so our ballots are already part of the results of this historic election.

And historic it is, with the first woman representing a major U.S. political party possibly on the way to winning office. If Hillary Clinton does indeed prevail, she’ll be the second trendsetter in a row, following Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President.

If we’re lucky enough to see a Clinton Presidency, the Republic will be safe for at least four more years as opposed to the existential danger to Constitutional government posed by her erratic, seemingly mentally unbalanced opponent.

The thing is, elections have consequences, and this election has more real consequences than any in the nation’s history. There have been other elections with major consequences, although none of them posing as dire a threat to our freedom as the current one. A case in point was the election of Andrew Jackson.

Political patronage armies are taken for granted these days—and looked upon with a good deal of well-deserved suspicion, for that matter. But when patronage was introduced, it was hailed by many as an innovative reform of the political process in the U.S. It also had an important impact on the settlement of the Old Northwest, including Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

1829-andrew-jackson

Andrew Jackson, although a wealthy planter by the time he was elected President, was the first chief executive who was born poor.

Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the reins of political power in the United States were held by what amounted to an oligarchy of rich Northern intellectuals and even richer Southern planters. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to the Virginia aristocracy while the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, were New England patricians.

Jackson was the first person born poor to become President and he was determined (as only Jackson could be) to work hard to represent what he saw as the interests of the common man—as long as that man was white and, you know, a man.

One of the first things Jackson noted when he took office was that the government bureaucracy was dominated by representatives of the oligarchy of landed and moneyed classes typified by the first six presidents. Jackson was a very good politician in his own right, and he quickly realized that information and communication is power in any government—especially in a democracy. In order to solidify his power and also to make government more responsive to the people instead of the landed and wealthy, Jackson essentially invented patronage.

“Office is considered a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people,” he complained upon assuming office.

1835-amos-kendall

Amos Kendall, former lawyer and newspaper man, was Jackson’s political hatchet man and confidant. Kendall and Jackson essentially invented the patronage system as a way to assure two-way communication to and from Washington, D.C. to local communities.

Not only did he vigorously weed out the oligarchs in Washington, but working closely with his old friend Amos Kendall, whom Jackson eventually named Postmaster General, the new President proceeded to make local U.S. Post Offices his eyes and ears in every community in the nation.

When Jackson was elected, settlement was just beginning in Kendall County. The earliest pioneers arrived starting in 1826, settling in the southern part of the county in that area south of the old Indian Boundary Line. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, intense settlement began north of the line as pioneers flooded into the county in violation of treaties with Native American tribes.

The village of Oswego is an example of how settlement occurred in Kendall County in the 1830s. William Wilson and Daniel, John, and Walter Pearce and their families settled the area in 1833. In 1835, Levi Arnold and Lewis Judson laid out a village where the Fox River narrows and a good limestone ford across the stream was located, calling it Hudson. As soon as it was laid out, the town’s developers and the area’s early settlers began promoting their investment.

Settlers wanted to promote their areas for two major reasons during the pioneer period—financial gain and political power. Certainly those who were first to claim land in a fast-growing area stood a good chance of making money from their investment. But most early town builders—at least those in Kendall County—had financial gain second on their list of hopes for the future. Their real goal was political power, and that is why they encouraged settlement and the growth of pioneer industries.

With population growth came the possibility of representation, first at the local level. Local governments were the first to be formed, and often their first goal was to make sure the town acquired a road. A branch of the Chicago-Galena Trail and one of three branches of the Chicago-Ottawa Trail, ran through Oswego when it was established. The Galena Road was soon lost to enterprising businessmen in Montgomery, who in turn soon lost it to Aurora.

The Ottawa Trail remained, however, and in 1837 local interests achieved a major political victory when they succeeded in persuading the government to establish a post office in Oswego. With the post office came a direct pipeline to Washington D.C. via President Jackson’s patronage army via postmaster Levi Arnold.

1838-oswego-roads-1838

While working their way west across the Prairie from Naperville in 1838, U.S. Government surveyors referred to the village along the Fox River as Hudson. But when they arrived to survey the village site, they noted its new name, “Oswego.” The village sat at the intersection of roads north along the Fox River, west to Dixon, southeast to Plainfield, and east to Naperville and Chicago.

But the acquisition also resulted in another watershed: Up until 1837, Oswego was known informally as Hudson. The post office, when it was granted, was named Lodi by the U.S. Postal Service. With two competing names, it was clear something needed to be done to avert confusion, so, according to an account in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, six pioneer residents of the village met to choose a name. Votes were cast and four names received votes. “Oswego,” which received two votes, won.

Oswego’s Federal connection came early; gaining local control took a couple more years. When Oswego was settled, it was part of Kane County. By 1840, in the throes of the effects of the Panic of 1837, residents of Oswego Township, along with those in Bristol and Little Rock Township, combined with residents in six other townships then part of LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Lisbon, and Seward) lobbied the Illinois General Assembly, and in February 1841 a new county was authorized, named after that same Amos Kendall who was Andrew Jackson’s political fixer. It’s always seemed a source of high irony to me that Kendall is named after one of the most powerful Democratic politicians of his day, given that the county, ever since the Republican Party was established, has been rock-ribbed GOP territory.

But anyway, the result of getting that new county established was retaining county-level political power close at hand, instead of ceding it to either Ottawa, the LaSalle County seat, or Geneva, the Kane County seat, both miles away. And in the early 19th Century, that distance was not trivial given the generally abominable state of the region’s road system.

The establishment of Oswego’s post office not only created that political pipeline to Washington, D.C., but it also connected the growing village to the national political and economic conversation via the newspaper slips carried free as part of the U.S. Mail. The slips, with their local, national, and international news items, were reprinted in the local press keeping local residents informed about everything from European wars to the latest political outrages in the nation’s capital.

Settlement continued to be promoted during the 1800s as area leaders sought direct representation in both state and Federal legislatures.

After a quiet period in the early 1900s, Kendall County’s population ballooned again beginning in the late 1950s as economic development drew new residents to the area. After pausing in the 1970s and early 1980s, another residential boom began in the late 1980s that was only stopped by the Great Recession and deflation of the huge housing bubble in 2008.

Along the way, patronage came into ill repute, and laws were passed severely limiting it. Even so, we managed to have our voices heard in both Washington, D.C. when a former area resident served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and another Oswego resident served as minority leader of the Illinois General Assembly. Our relatively brief fling with national power came to a bad end when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of financial misdeeds and suspected of worse things, although I think that despite his ignominious fall, he did an awful lot of good for Kendall County.

Today, there’s nothing like the Jackson-created direct pipeline from every crossroads post office in the nation directly to Washington, D.C., which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly, it seems a lot more efficient not to have every postmaster in the nation replaced when a different party assumes the Presidency, which is what happened for many, many years during the 19th Century.

But, still, one thing we’ve come to see during recent years is the bubble that Washington politicians seem to live in where they interact only with themselves and other members of the power structure in the nation’s capital, including those giant, vampire bat-like swarms of lobbyists and members of the national media. Maybe a direct connection from every local post office directly to the Oval Office to keep the President current on what regular folks are thinking might not be all bad.

 

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Despite our best efforts to kill it, the Fox River just keeps on rolling along…

One of Kendall County’s most valuable natural assets is it’s surprisingly extensive system of waterways.

The Fox River is, of course, the most dominant waterway in the county. The river enters the county in northwestern Oswego Township and then cuts diagonally cross county, running along the border between Oswego and Bristol townships, similarly along the Bristol-Kendall Township line and then into Little Rock Township and through Fox Township before exiting the county and heading southwesterly into LaSalle County.

The other major system of waterways in the county is the Aux Sable watershed. In terms of area within the county’s bounds, the Aux Sable watershed is actually the county’s largest, since it drains all or parts of six of Kendall County’s nine townships.

That Kendall has two major drainage basins separated by what the voyageurs used to call a “height of land,” is a rarity for such a small county. Thanks to that accident of geography, more than half the county’s surface waters drain directly into the Illinois River via the large Aux Sable system while the rest of the county drains through the Fox River watershed.

The Fox River’s watershed includes most of the county’s largest creeks, including Big Rock and Little Rock creeks, Rob Roy Creek, Blackberry Creek, Waubonsie Creek, and Morgan Creek.

indians-fishing

The county’s earliest residents, Stone Age Native American hunters and their families, found that the area’s numerous waterways made it a nice place to live. Those earliest inhabitants lived around the lakes, sloughs, and swamps left behind as the last glaciers retreated because game was abundant in those areas, as were many other necessities of life. Camp and village sites dating back thousands of years found overlooking the county’s waterways and wetlands show that those early residents depended on streams for clams and other invertebrates and fish, on swamps and sloughs for small and big game, and on rich bottomland for edible plants, from nuts and berries to wild grain, that could easily be gathered in abundance.

After European explorers arrived, the lifestyles of local Native Americans changed as they gathered materials to trade for brass pots, iron and steel axes, woolen blankets, linen cloth, brandy and run, firearms, and silver ornaments and glass beads. The area’s waterways proved even more valuable in that new mode of life, as local tribesmen trapped beaver, muskrat, fox, and other fur-bearing animals whose skins were sent back to Europe in trade for items that quickly became necessities.

In those days, the various branches of the Aux Sable (French for “Sandy Water”) were important geographical references, and were referred to as landmarks in several major treaties between the U.S. Government and the Indian tribes living in northern Illinois.

By the time the first permanent white settlers arrived along the banks of the Fox River in the 1820s, fur-bearing animals were nearly extinct and game in general was scarce due to over-hunting and over-trapping. In fact, the earliest Kendall County settlers found they had to import food to what had once been one of the richest natural areas on Earth.

fox-mill-on-hollenbacks-creek

According to this survey map, a sawmill was located at the mouth of Hollenback Creek in Fox Township in 1838, illustrating that even some of the smallest creeks in the Fox River’s watershed were harnessed to power mills.

Waterways proved just as important to the economics of early settlers as they had to Native Americans, although in far different ways. The settlers quickly harnessed the power of the county’s waterways through the construction of dams. The resulting water power was put to work turning mill wheels to grind corn and other grain and to saw the wood needed to build homes for the area’s fast-growing population. Virtually every substantial stream in the county—and even some insubstantial ones—boasted a mill of some kind at some time or another. And the Fox River itself eventually became dotted with dams along its length through Kendall County that provided water power for many more mills.

With the tribes gone (all Indians were removed from Northern Illinois in 1836), game slowly recovered, although the buffalo never returned to Illinois after it was wiped out about 1800 by a combination of over-hunting for skins and vicious winters.

Within a few generations, however, the newly recovered big and small game was again decimated by over-hunting. It has only recently began to recover relatively recently once again as fewer and fewer county residents hunt and trap during the winter months and as development has made hunting either inappropriate, unwelcome, or downright dangerous.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

This group of youngsters was captured in a photograph around 1910 fishing in Waubonsie Creek near downtown Oswego. By then, the county’s two main watersheds was already badly polluted by homes, farms, and businesses.

Settlement also meant extreme changes in water quality for the county’s streams. Kendall County’s once-clear and cool streams were slowed by dams, choked by silt, and poisoned by fertilizer and other chemicals running off of cultivated fields. After the settlement era, the Fox River in particular became a dumping ground for growing industries upstream in Kane County and for human waste from virtually everywhere else in the river’s drainage basin. By the 1950s, the river and many of the county’s creeks had become little more than cesspools with currents.

But beginning in the 1970s, word on cleaning up the county’s streams began, thanks to federal clean water regulations, without which most of our streams would be open sewers still. Today, the Fox River is prized for its smallmouth bass fishery and the once-rare wildlife it attracts and nurtures. The City of Aurora even uses it for drinking water, and Oswego, Montgomery, and Yorkville are talking about doing that, too.

But Kendall County has yet, I think, to realize how valuable a resource the river and its tributaries is and how valuable it could be. The good news, I guess, is that at least we’ve at least temporarily quit trying to kill the river and its tributaries. The bad news is it took the federal government to make us do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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