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The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, Part II

Part II in a two-part series in observation of National Historic Preservation Month…

In the autumn of 1964, Oswego’s Little White School was closed after serving as classroom space for the district’s students for the previous 49 years.

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Oswego’s Little White School in 1958 in a photo taken by Homer Durrand for the Oswegorama community celebration. (Little White School collection)

The building started its life in Oswego as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, opening in 1850. For the next 63 years it served the community’s Methodists as a worship center and the rest of the community as public meeting space. Probably one of the more interesting non-religious events held in the building was the presentation of Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California. The spectacular presentation, which consisted of dozens of scenes of travel overland to California painted by artist James Wilkins, was mounted on canvas and then scrolled past the viewers, who were seated in chairs (or pews in the case of the Methodist-Episcopal Church) with live narration and music.

As Kendall County Courier Editor H.S. Humphrey put it in the May 23, 1855 issue: “Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California was exhibited last night at the Methodist Church to quite a respectable audience. It is a magnificent work of art…Persons wishing to make a journey across the plains can do it by visiting this Panorama, without the expenses and hardships attendant upon such an excursion.”

Nevertheless, the congregation was perennially short on money, and eventually dissolved in 1913. In 1915, the Oswego School District bought the building for classroom space for primary students. It served the community as both a school and public meeting space until the district closed it in 1964, afterwards using it for storage. When the district announced plans to sell the badly deteriorated building in the mid-1970s, a grassroots community effort was launched to save the building due to its direct linkage to Oswego’s rich heritage.

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Photo of Little White School taken by Daryl Gaar in July 1970 in preparation of a real estate appraisal report for the Oswego School District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which is where we rejoin the story with the formation of the Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976. After all the hoopla and excitement of the Bicentennial ended it was time for the OHA to get to work to save the building. Restoration began in 1977, just 40 years ago this summer. The project was to be completed under a unique agreement between the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building and grounds; the Oswegoland Park District, which pledged regular maintenance support; and the heritage association, which pledged to raise funds and oversee the building’s restoration.

Stabilization of the badly deteriorated structure was a vital first step. The first task was to tear the old roofs off and install a new one, a task accomplished with a combination of volunteer and paid labor, with funds raised by the heritage association. Next it was time to pull off the old wooden shingle siding, fill the nail holes, mask the windows, and paint the building.

A concrete porch and stairs had replaced the buildings original wooden front porch and stairs sometime around 1912, and over the years it sank, and as it did more concrete was added to level it out. It was determined the old concrete needed to go, and so it was demolished and removed. And that’s when it was discovered the front 11 x 11 inch solid oak sill had almost completely rotted away thanks to water flowing backwards on the concrete front porch and onto the sill during

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Getting a new roof on the Little White School Museum was the first order of business as restoration began in 1977. (Little White School Museum collection)

the previous 60 years. The result was the floor joists at the front of the building were no longer connected to the sill (which no longer existed at that location), but were being held up by the vestibule’s floorboards to which they were nailed—which is pretty much the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.

So carpentry wizard Stan Young replaced the rotted sill, and reproduced the wooden front porch using a 1901 postcard view of the building to draw his plans.

With the building painted, the front stairs replaced and a new roof installed, the last major exterior project was restoring the building’s bell tower. We’d discovered the church’s original bell was doing duty as Oswego High School’s victory bell, and so would be available—provided we could find a replacement victory bell. The good news was that the Oswego School District then, and probably now, too, doesn’t throw anything away, and it turned out they still had the bell recovered when the Red Brick School was demolished in 1965. All concerned agreed that would do just fine.

1980 Bell tower in place

The Little White School Museum’s restored bell tower after it was lowered in place by Garbe Iron Works’ mobile crane on Oct. 25, 1980. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Stan Young got to work, assisted by his sons, Glenn and Don, building a replica of the original bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School in the fall of 1980. By Oct. 25, the tower was completed, along with a timber support structure to hold the bell.

Thanks to Oswegoan Terry Peshia, the OHA got an in-kind donation of a mobile crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora that was used to hoist the church bell out of the high school’s courtyard and then replace it there with the Red Brick School bell.

With a crew ready to go at the museum, first the bell, now bolted to its support timbers, was hoisted up and set in place, where it fit neatly through holes in the roof Stan had already created, and into the original mortises in the building’s timber structure. Then the tower itself was swayed up and, despite a sudden gust of wind on that breezy cloudy autumn day, was lowered into place and secured.

Museum northwest before afterFor the next two years, Stan Young scrounged for copper materials from which he fabricated a finial to fit atop the tower, using that 1901 postcard photo of the building to recreate it to scale.

Meanwhile, the OHA Board of Directors had been holding spirited discussions about what to do with the rest of the building’s restoration. The exterior was going to look like the building did after the 1901 addition of the bell and tower, with the exception that the 1934 classroom would be retained. But what to do with the interior?

The first decision was to renovate—not restore—the third classroom and the 1936 hallway into a modern entry and museum room. The rooms were gutted, which wasn’t hard because the water damage from the bad roof was causing the plaster and plaster board to fall down anyway. The windows along the south wall were all removed, and the three windows along the north side of the room were replaced with sashes with UV-filtering glass. Then the museum room and hallway were completely rewired, drop ceilings with recessed lighting were installed, and steel security doors were installed at the two exterior entrances. Finally, new wallboard was installed and everything got a couple coats of paint.

The museum committee had been working, too, using a moveable panel system designed by Glenn Young to divide the third classroom into exhibit areas. Young fabricated the dividers and the locking pins after which volunteers painted the frames and museum committee members installed burlap coverings before the panels were moved into place and secured. With display cases donated by Shuler’s Drug Store and other Oswego businesses, artifacts were placed on exhibit all in time for the museum’s grand opening in the spring of 1983 in time for the celebration of Oswego’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

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Interior of the Little White School Museum’s main room after demolition of the drop ceiling and partitions. (Little White School Museum collection)

By that time, and after much debate, the decision had been made to follow the recommendations championed by Glenn Young to return the Little White School Museum’s main room back to its original, classic Greek Revival dimensions. It would be a single room, 36 x 50 feet with 17 foot ceilings, complete with restored windows, replica oil lamps installed where the building’s original lamps had hung, and refinished trim, replicated where necessary. To accomplish that, all the interior partitions would have to be torn out, including the newer vestibule, the drop ceiling would have to be removed, the stairways to the basement washrooms would have to be removed and the floor patched, and the original, smaller, vestibule restored.

Fortunately for the project, the United Auto Workers local at Oswego Township’s Caterpillar, Inc. plant happened to pick the autumn of 1983 to go on strike. That freed up some of the workers at Cat who, when they weren’t walking the picket line, volunteered to help with the interior demolition work. By late fall, the room was back to its original dimensions and the scope of work could be determined. The old stairwells were capped, and major floor repairs near the buildings front door were completed, and then the lumber salvaged after the demolition work was used to restore the original vestibule, the dimensions of which were clearly visible.

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

Glenn Young gluing up a frosted plate glass window pane during the glue-chipping process. About 12 hours of volunteer time was spent on each restored window sash. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next question was what to do with the walls and ceiling, repair the original horsehair plaster or tear it all off. The decision was made to repair it, but before that happened the opportunity was taken to blow insulation into the walls from the inside since the holes in the plaster walls could easily be patched during the wall repair. The entire room was also rewired with heavy duty wire and new outlets installed throughout, along with a new 200-amp breaker panel.

After both the wall and ceiling repairs and the insulation installation were finished, everything got a coat of heavy duty sealer, followed by two coats of off-white paint.

Meanwhile, the wainscoting that had been removed during restoration work had been stripped of its paint, but there was still lots of wainscoting still in place around the room that needed to be stripped. So my son, and his best friend, spend their summer earning a bit of spending money by stripping decades of paint with heat guns. When stripping was finished, and all the wainscoting boards replaced, Glenn Young began the process of graining it to look like more expensive oak boards, using the graining examples we found behind some of the room’s baseboard as a guide.

When restoration began, we found two small panes of the original 1901 diamond-patterned glass had survived in windows on the buildings southeast corner. We had no idea what the glass was, only that it was decorated with alternate rows of diamonds, one row frosted diamonds, and the next with a floral pattern that seemed etched into the glass itself. After a couple years of research, Glenn Young found the glass decorations had been created through a process called glue-chipping. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, glue-chipped glass could be bought by the square foot at almost every community’s lumber yard, but it was only obtainable by hobbiests creating their own when we decided to restore the Little White School Museum’s windows.

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Completed 4-sash window unit with glue-chipped panes and restored trim. Note the restored chair rail and grained wainscoting below the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young determined to figure out how to do glue-chipping, and so began a series of experiments. Originally, glue-chipping was done in the country’s glass factories. The diamond patterns were masked off with beeswax and then the panes were etched with hydrochloric acid. Then alternate rows of diamonds were painted with hide glue, which, when it dried, actually fractured the surface of the glass, leaving behind a fern-like pattern.

The first part of recreating the 32 individual 18×60 inch panes was relatively easy. Using the two original pieces of glue-chipped glass that still existed, Young created a template out of brown butcher’s paper. Then the new panes of plate glass were placed on the template and the diamond pattern created with pressure-sensitive packing tape cut to the right width. Then the taped-up panes were sandblasted to create an entire pane of frosted diamonds.

Through trial and error, Young found the correct mixture of dried hide glue and water to use and also determined it had to be kept at 140 degrees as he was carefully coating every other row of frosted diamonds. Figuring out how to properly dry the glue to create a consistent pattern was just as difficult. Eventually, it was found that allowing a glued-up pane to dry overnight, until it seemed dry to the touch, and then scattering a pound of silica gel crystals over the surface and wrapping it in plastic sheeting to flash-dry the rest of the moisture out of the glued diamonds was the most effective. The flash-drying process actually sounds like corn popping, as the glue, which has adhered to the rows of frosted diamonds, quickly contracts and fractures the surface, jumping up and bouncing off the plastic sheeting.

As each glue-chipped pane was created, it was carefully moved into a restored and painted sash to be glazed and then painted. Glass is really a solid liquid, and the glue-chipping process removes the surface tension that gives each pane its strength. Unless handled extremely carefully, panes fold up, breaking along the lines of the sandblasted diamonds.

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

Glenn Young finishes hanging one of the restored, electrified oil lamp fixtures in the Little White School Museum’s main room. (Little White School Museum collection)

We found we had enough original trim to restore half the room’s windows, so we took a sample up to Commercial Woodworking in Aurora where they created custom knives for their shapers to produce enough trim for the rest of the windows. Then as each set of four sashes was finished, the windows were restored, one after the other.

While that project was underway, the building’s heating system was completely replaced with a 98% efficient gas furnace. To avoid cutting a large hole in the floor for a return air duct, we built the ducts into the sides of the restored pulpit platform, covering them with decorative cast iron grilles. We were also working on the building’s basement, aiming to turn it into an artifact and archival storage area. When we ripped the old basement ceiling down, we found that over the years as this or that new heating system had been installed, floor joists had been cut out and never replaced. So as the window project continued (Young was spending about 12 hours of volunteer time most weekends on it) we spent a year scabbing new 2×8 floor joists onto the old joists and leveling, as far as we could, the floor.

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

My son Nathaniel literally grew up with the Little White School Museum’s restoration. At left, he inspects one of the building’s 11×11 inch structural timbers. At right, he finishes the main room’s pulpit platform floor in 2002. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the windows restored, we were seeing some light at the end of the restoration tunnel. And so we began working on restoring the main room’s lighting. We’d decided years before to use what the 1902 Sears catalog referred to as “store fixtures.” The building had apparently not been electrified until the 1930s, so there was no knob and tube wiring or any other antique system to deal with. Instead, in the building’s attic we found the counterweights, wooden pulleys, and wrought iron rods from which its seven oil lamps hung. The lamps were pulled down to trim the wicks and fill the fonts with oil. The counterweights—small boxes made from wainscot scraps—were fortunately still full of the rocks used to balance the weights of the lamps so we weighed a couple to figure out how heavy the original lamps were. And then we went shopping in the Sears catalog to

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The completely restored main room at the Little White School Museum provides community meeting space. (Little White School Museum collection)

figure out what lamps might have been used. For the next few years we gradually acquired nickel-plated kerosene lamps and fonts until we had enough for the whole room.

Back then, it was fashionable to buy the lamps and have the nickel plating removed to display the polished brass the fonts were actually made from. We were fortunate to find a small local plating business that agreed to replace all our lamp fonts with nickel as an in-kind donation. We then got Lee Winckler, a true artist in metalworking, make the lamp shades and harps, and to make the electrified burners too. Since the counterweights and rods were still in the building’s attic, we knew exactly where each lamp was to be positioned. We used ¼” black pipe to simulate the original wrought iron rods, and standard electrical lamp hooks to hang each lamp. Interestingly enough, we found the lamps were positioned over the building’s two side aisles, with three others grouped above the pulpit platform.

The last project was to floor the pulpit platform, and for that we were able to hire my son, who had been working on the building since he was five years old. The floor was finished in the autumn of 2002, wrapping up a quarter century of restoration work.

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Oswego’s Little White School Museum was in danger of demolition in 1976. Today it is a community landmark and repository for the Oswego area’s history. (Little White School Museum collection)

The moral of our story is restoration using mostly volunteer labor is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not a quick process, either—witness my son, who literally grew up with the project. But it does have its positives, too, especially having a community landmark to look at when you (finally) get done with it.

Today, the Little White School Museum, open seven days a week thanks to financial support from the Oswegoland Park District, is open seven days a week, annually hosts thousands of visitors, features a comprehensive community history museum, and houses a collection of nearly 27,000 photographs, artifacts, and archival materials. It is a tribute to all those instrumental in its preservation, from the grassroots group spearheaded by Janis Hoch who founded the Oswegoland Heritage Association, to the Oswego School District officials who took a chance that plans to restore the building would pan out, to Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Ford Lippold and his successor, Bert Gray, who were determined to save the building for future generations to the community groups who donated time, effort, and money, to all those who’ve served on the heritage association’s board for the last 40 years.

I suspect it’s exactly what the folks who created National Historic Preservation Month had in mind back in 1973 when they got the historic preservation ball rolling.

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A labor of (community) love: The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

Way back in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to establish a month-long observation of efforts to preserve a bit of the nation’s history before it was demolished, paved over, or otherwise lost to future generations.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

The loss of the Oswego Depot to the wrecker’s ball lin 1970 alerted the community that its historic buildings were disappearing. (Little White School Museum photo)

It was right about that time, actually a little before, when efforts were underway to preserve Oswego’s railroad depot. Passenger service on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego had ceased in 1952, and by the 1960s the old depot was long obsolete. For us kids, it was always fascinating to peek in the windows to see the rows of seats in the passenger waiting room and the still-shiny brass fittings throughout the building.

In the late 1960s, the Oswego Jaycees announced they had a plan to preserve the building and turn it into a community museum. It would have made a good one, too. The Jaycees were negotiating in what they thought was good faith with the depot’s owners, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, when we all woke up one day to find the depot had been demolished literally overnight.

It was a shock to a community that had seen the landmark Red Brick School demolished to make way for the new Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office in 1965 and suffered another wake-up call when a devastating 1973 fire in the downtown business district that destroyed two storefronts in the historic Union Block that had been built in 1867.

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When word got around the community that the landmark Little White School was in danger of being torn down, a grassroots community group, the Oswegoland Heritage Association, was formed to save it. (Little White School Museum collection)

So when word got around that the Oswego School District was contemplating the sale of the Little White School, one of the village’s most familiar remaining landmarks, it caused a group of history-interested persons to start thinking about ways the building could be saved.

Historic preservation in general got a bit shot in the arm during the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Supporters of saving the Little White School piggybacked off that interest to establish the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association, whose main goal was to save the historic old building from destruction, restore it, and establish a community museum there.

In order to get the job done, the founders of the OHA worked to create a unique three-way partnership between the nonprofit group; the Oswego School District, which owned the building; and the Oswegoland Park District, whose executive director, Ford Lippold, was one of the moving forces behind the formation of the OHA. The OHA pledged to coordination and raise funds to finance the building’s restoration; the park district pledged to maintain the school grounds (which they named Heritage Park) and provide regular building maintenance and operations financial support; and the school district agreed to maintain ownership of the building.

Because the school district had planned to sell the building for several years before restoration efforts began, they’d allowed it to badly deteriorate. There were three or four layers of roofing, none of which were weather-tight; the shingle siding added in the 1930s was deteriorating; and the structure was in generally poor overall condition.

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This postcard view of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church–later the Little White School–was created about 1901 after a major remodeling project was finished, including the addition of the bell tower and diamond-patterned glass panes in the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although called the Little White School to differentiate it from the nearby Red Brick School (Oswego school names have never been very innovative), the building wasn’t really all that little. Built on its site at the “Y” intersection of Jackson and Polk streets in 1850 as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, the timber-framed building measured 36 x 50 feet, and featured a bell and bell tower. During restoration work it was discovered that it’s likely the building had been constructed and used elsewhere and then dismantled and moved to Oswego. Doing such a thing with a timber frame building is not nearly as difficult as with a more modern balloon frame structure. The structure’s 11” x 11” oak and walnut timbers were fastened together using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. Ceiling and floor joists fit into pockets mortised into the ceiling and floor beams in each of the building’s five timber bents. As originally built, the structure featured pine wainscoting grained to resemble oak around its complete interior, including on the low center partition, along with a pulpit platform at the front of the

1850-1913 floorplan

Floorplan of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church from 1850-1913. Note the lack of a center aisle. (Little White School Museum collection)

main room. Pews were arranged with no center aisle, but instead with two aisles on either side of the room accessed by doors on either side of the front entrance vestibule. Pews on both sides of the room extended from the wall to the aisle, and then from the other side of the aisle to a low center partition.

When the structure was dismantled for the move to Oswego from wherever it previously stood, the interior tongue and groove flooring was removed, although apparently not all of it was salvageable. Likewise, the old wainscoting was removed and stockpiled, as were the floor and ceiling joists. Last, the timber frame was taken apart, and the pieces moved to the Oswego site. Since the length and design of the floor and ceiling joists were identical, the pieces were interchangeable, and were taken off the pile to install without regard to whether they’d been floor or ceiling joists in their previous lives. Apparently, only enough tongue and groove flooring was available to piece together the floorboards on one side of the room, with new flooring probably bought from the Parker or other local sawmilling operation.

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

This August 1912 photo of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church by Dwight Smith Young shows off the new concrete front porch and stairs that would cause restorers so much trouble 66 years later. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church served its congregation well, undergoing periodic renovations and maintenance. In 1901, the building got a major facelift. More ornate interior trim was added and the 32 glass panes in the building’s 16 double-hung windows was replaced by diamond-patterned glue-chipped panes that were a sort of poor man’s stained glass. In addition to the other upgrades, a bell tower and bell were also added to the building, with all the improvements financed thanks to donations from Tirzah Minard, widow of one of the church’s early ministers, Henry Minard.

But by that first decade of the 20th Century, the congregation was in near-constant financial trouble. So when the congregation dissolved in 1913 it wasn’t much of a shock to the community.

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The “Little School” in its tri-color paint scheme in this 1919 photograph by Fred Holzhueter. (Little White School Museum collection)

The building sat vacant for a couple years, and then in 1915, the Oswego School District found itself in need to additional classroom space for primary-aged students. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on Sept. 1, 1915 that “The Methodist church room will be used by the Oswego school, as one of their rooms this winter. It is being cleared and fitted for the work of education, non-sectarian.”

That fall, the pews and the center partition were removed revealing the floor that had been installed when the building had been erected on the Oswego site. It must have been interesting walking or sitting in desks since the boards did not span even half of the room. Instead, one length of floorboards extended from the wall to the edge of the aisle

1915-1930

The Little School’s floorplan from 1915 to 1930 with toilet rooms created by partitioning the vestibule. (Little White School Museum collection)

on each side of the room. A second set floored the aisles on either side of the room, and a third set floored the area under the pews from the aisles to the center partition. Although it didn’t matter much at the time, the newer floorboards on the building’s south side were about 3/8” thinner than the original boards on the north side.

In addition, the front vestibule was given two partitions to create two toilets, one on either side, one for girls and one for boys. With the two former vestibule doors no longer accessible, a new door was cut through the east wall of the vestibule to create access to the classroom. Sinks were also installed along the north and south walls on either side of the vestibule, and coat hooks were screwed into the wainscoting.

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

This 1919 postcard view is the only known interior photograph of the Little School before the 1930s. There are no known interior shots of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. Note the sink and coats on hooks in the back corner of the room. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dubbed “the Little School” to differentiate it from the larger nearby brick Oswego Community School, it was originally used as a one-room building for grades 1-3. About 1920, a new floor was laid over the original tongue and groove flooring, making the room much easier to use. Shims were used to fill the 3/8” space caused by the thinner floorboards on the south side of the room.

In 1930, the room was divided into two classrooms and the ceiling was dropped by four feet in each room. The windows remained untouched, however, so that now the upper sashes extended above the ceilings in the two rooms. Also, a new, larger vestibule was created around the entranceway. The bathrooms—this time with flush toilets—were moved to smaller rooms partitioned off of the new vestibule on either side of the entrance. The old, smaller, vestibule was retained for the time being, with the old toilet rooms remodeled into boys’ and girls’ closets.

1930-34

The Little School’s floorplan from 1930-34 with two classrooms, a larger vestibule/hall and restrooms moved to the front corners of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

When the students arrived for school that fall, they discovered a new teacher had been hired. Virginia Crossman roomed with the Morse family, along with another young teacher, Rachel Winebrenner, who taught fifth and sixth grade. Eventually, the two educators married local farmers, Crossman becoming Mrs. Pete Campbell and Winebrenner becoming Mrs. Bill Anderson. Crossman taught third grade and half of second in her room, while veteran teacher Isabel Rubel again taught first and half of second grade.

In 1934, making use of Federal Civil Works Administration funding, the Oswego School District had the Little School jacked up and had a basement dug beneath it. The job almost came to a disastrous end when the front of the building began slipping off the jacks. But fast work by local contractor Irvin Haines and his crew saved the day—and the building. But the lasting result was that the front of the building bows out by almost two inches.

1934-83

With a basement dug beneath the building in 1934, the restrooms were moved downstairs, stairwells replacing the old first floor restrooms in the building’s front corners. (Little White School Museum collection)

Inside, the old vestibule was completely removed and the bathrooms that had been added in 1930 were turned into stairwells to the basement where boys’ and girls’ restrooms were located.

Then two years later, this time using Works Progress Administration funds, a third classroom, measuring 36 x 30 feet was built on the east side of the Little School, along with a new main entrance hall and basement access stairway. In addition, the entire building received new wood shingle siding and a new coat of paint that picked out the window trim.

1948 abt exterior sepia

By 1948, the building had received it’s iconic coat of white paint and had become known as the Little White School. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1940s, the building had received its coat of white paint, and became known as the Little White School to a few more generations of students, including its last use as junior high classroom space in the middle of the Oswego School District’s first major enrollment growth spurt. When the new Oswego High School on Ill. Route 71 opened in the fall of 1964, and the old high school at Franklin and Washington was repurposed and renamed Oswego Junior High School. The Little White School, already in bad repair, was closed to students for the last time and the district pondered what to do with it. For several years it was used as school district storage space. But by the mid-1970s, school district officials were seeing the building as not only a community eyesore, but also obsolete for any conceivable use for them.

When word got around the community that the district was entertaining serious thoughts of demolishing the historic old structure, community residents came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to see another landmark razed.

To be continued…

 

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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 historical legacy of Marvin Lawyer

Unless you live around these parts, you probably didn’t hear about the death of Marvin Lawyer a couple weeks ago.

Lawyer, Marvin

Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person whose extraordinary love of one-room schools has left an invaluable historical legacy.

He died May 28 at the fine old age of 91 at the Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle.

Marvin was a lifelong Kendall County resident, except for the years he spent helping Uncle Sam beat the Nazis over in Europe during World War II. He served in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and central Europe and was sent back to Kendall County after the war, where he married, had a family, and led what amounted to a fairly ordinary life in those days.

As a child, he attended the old Inscho School, located in Section 18 of Kendall Township on Highpoint Road just south of Ill. Route 71. The school was named after the Inscho family, who originally owned the small parcel on which it was built.

The original school, then named the Long Grove School was built by subscription in 1841, the subscribers each contributing from one to three logs for its construction. In 1855, a new timber frame building was constructed under the terms of Illinois’ new law allowing property tax revenues to fund public schools and it also got its modern name.

Marvin graduated from Yorkville High School, served in the military, and then returned to farm, drive a school bus, work at the Aurora Post Office, and own small businesses in Newark, where he spent virtually the rest of his life.

While many remember Marvin as an avid rock collector, I remember him as someone fascinated with Kendall County’s one-room schools. Like me, he’d attended a one-room country school, and enjoyed the experience. In fact, he apparently enjoyed it so much that for a time he lived in the Inscho School after it had been converted into a private residence. By the early 1990s, Marvin’s interest had led him to begin collecting everything he could find on Kendall County’s one-room schools. I suspect he wasn’t sure what he’d do with all the information, but he doggedly kept at it.

That’s when I met him. He enjoyed my “Reflections” columns on local history in the Kendall County Record, and so he’d stop by the newspaper office from time to time to pick my brain about one-room rural schools in the Oswego area. He was always an interesting guy to chat with, and we exchanged information until 1995 when he finally self-published his 410-page The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County. He stopped by the newspaper office that year to proudly give me a copy as well as one for the Little White School Museum’s collections.

Union School cropped.jpg

The Union School, District 48, in Kendall County was the home of both a Presbyterian Church and a one-room school. The congregation went on to build the AuSable Grove Presbyterian Church, after which the building was used solely as a school. Today it has been moved to the Lyon Historical Farm and Village near Yorkville, where it has been restored. (Little White School Museum collection)

The book is not a polished history, but rather is simply the most invaluable reference on the county’s old country schools anywhere in existence. He was able to track down 99 of them that were in operation at one time or another through the years. Some were familiar—the Fern Dell School has been restored by Newark’s Fern Dell Historical Association and the Union School was moved to the Kendall County Historical Society’s Lyon Farm and Village, where it was likewise restored. But others—the Sandy Bluff, the Booth, the Porter, and the Asbury schools, for instance—were much more obscure.

But for each, he interviewed former students to get their stories, tried to find out who the teachers had been, described the buildings, and tried to obtain photographs.

The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County was obviously a labor of love, the kind of project that guarantees his name will be remembered long after his death. Which, of course, is not at all why he did it. He did it because he loved his county and his community and he was determined to set down a record of one part of its fast-disappearing history—its one-room country schools—before the memories of them faded forever.

It was a task at which he succeeded, and along the way, which has left a priceless record of an important time in the lives of so many thousands of people that will never be again. Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing for which students of Kendall County history will be forever grateful.

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Creating a generation of historical illiterates…

Back in 1979, British science historian James Burke hosted a series on Public Television titled “Connections,” in which he linked a variety of seemingly unconnected inventions and historical happenings to explain how everything from telecommunications to nuclear power came to be.

It was hugely entertaining and informative at the same time.

This year, science historian Steven Johnson has been presenting “How We Got to Now,” also on PBS. Using an approach similar to Burke’s, Johnson connects the technological dots to explain hos even the most modern inventions have their roots in the past, sometimes in the ancient world.

Like Burke (but without the bad leisure suits, the plague of the 1970s), Johnson delivers profound facts about how modern life is rooted in the past in an entertaining way that imparts knowledge so effortlessly that we barely realize he’s been teaching us things we need and ought to know.

The tragic, triumphant winter the Continental Army spent at Valley Forge won’t be among the facts rattling around in the heads of South Dakota public school students, thanks to new history standards recently approved by the state board of education that take effect next school year.

I thought of those two men and their programs this morning when I read a startling and dismaying piece by John Fea, the chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA and the author of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past over at the Raw Story web site.

It seems the State of South Dakota has decided their public school students, from kindergarten through high school, will no longer be required to learn about early American history.

The new standards, which take effect next year, eliminate the requirement to teach the first 100 years of U.S. history, which means the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the development of the Constitution, slavery, Native People, and all the rest of the history, good and bad, that has accumulated to make us what we are today. Teachers, of course, will be welcome to teach that era of history if they have the time, but the students won’t be tested on it. And as we’ve learned during the past several years, if it doesn’t appear on standardized achievement tests, it’s not going to be taught because more and more of a teacher’s career is based on how students perform on those tests.

I haven’t read what the rationale for this short-sighted and destructive change is, but I’m assuming its bottom line rests on the finances of the situation, as do so many decisions affecting our modern educational system.

Time was, we used to use history as a tool to help us learn from both our successes and our mistakes. Today, what the military likes to call “lessons learned” seem to have been cast aside in favor of ignoring consequences—both good and bad—in favor of relying instead on strongly held beliefs.

It’s a destructive and dismaying trend, and the folks in South Dakota are, unless things change, doomed to producing future generations of citizens with no knowledge of the great errors and great accomplishments that have made the country they live in came to be the way it is today.

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African American History Month…

February is African American History Month. I’ve always wondered why January wasn’t selected as the month to honor the history of the nation’s black residents since, to me, at least, January seems to make a lot more sense. After all, it’s the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. But February it is.

Every year about this time, I hear folks wondering how come we need a African American History Month at all. After all, blacks are citizens like everyone else and other ethnic groups don’t have their own history months. Except they do. For instance, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month, September is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. And November honors American Indians.

And there’s one major historical difference between African Americans and all the nation’s other ethnic groups: blacks are the only ones who were brought here involuntarily.

Black slaves were first imported into Illinois during the French colonial era. The first 500 blacks were brought from Haiti in 1720 to work mines and when that didn’t pan out, to grow crops in and around the colonial towns of Cahokia and Kaskaskia that were exported downriver to New Orleans. Slavery continued in Illinois throughout the colonial era and after the Revolutionary War secured Illinois for the new United States. When the Northwest Ordinance was passed in 1787 establishing the Northwest Territory (which included the eventual states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana), slavery was prohibited, with the major loophole that slaves owned by the territory’s French residents were permitted. Illinois was first settled by Southerners coming up from Tennessee and Kentucky. Because of the pro-slavery stance of so many of Illinois’ earliest residents, turning it into a slave state was narrowly avoided during a contentious political campaign in 1824, thanks to the strong anti-slavery views of the growing number of settlers from northern states and England.

Nathan Hughes and his wife posed for this formal portrait about 1892. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin made from captured Confederate cannons. (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes and his wife posed for this formal portrait about 1892. A Union Army veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops, Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin made from captured Confederate cannons. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County’s black history began a decade later. Among those arriving in the county in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray, and Elias Dial. The group decided to settle around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area in Fox Township.

The group was notable for a couple of reasons. First, they hadn’t moved west in gradual stages via the Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Illinois route most Southerner settlers took. Instead, like the flood of pioneers from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, they came directly from the South. But unlike those other settlers, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks noted the South Carolinians “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 highly unlikely, however, that either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when the Carns and Murrays brought them to Kendall County. 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. With state government still heavily in the hands of slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who insisted on owning their fellow humans.

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County's black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes' daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day.  (Little White School Museum collection)

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County’s black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes’ daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the next 35 years, few other blacks lived in Kendall County, at least according to the dectennial censuses. But after the Civil War, the county saw a flood of former slaves arrive and settle on farms. Others moved to the county’s small towns where they established businesses or worked for white residents.

The heyday of the county’s black farming community was in the 1880s, after which many of the families left the land to work in factories in the Kendall County community of Plano and in nearby Aurora, whose industrial base was booming. The descendants of those families still live in and around Aurora, while others who grew up in and around Oswego have moved on and up, parlaying their small town roots into a wide range of careers including service as educators from public schools through university. (For a more in-depth look at the African American community in Kendall County, follow the link to one of my recent Ledger-Sentinel columns.)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes' grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes’ grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Interestingly enough, these new residents to this small corner of northern Illinois seemed to fit in pretty well. Their kids went to local schools, and out in rural areas they participated in the farming culture. In town, some of them became integrated into community life. The big question, for me and for their descendants who are now working on their family histories, is why did they choose to move to Kendall County? What was the lure? No one living apparently knows. It seems an odd choice. Yes, the county had a rail line running through it’s northern tier, but most of the black families that came in the wake of the Civil War settled several miles away from that line.

There was no existing African American community here in Kendall County, and those families who had left the old slave states could not be at all sure what their reception would be. And for many reasons, those receptions turned out to be reasonably affable. It didn’t hurt that some of tho African American men who came after the war were veterans of the conflict like so many of their white neighbors. The Grand Army of the Republic, the politically powerful Union veterans’ organization, normally did not welcome black members. But here in Kendall County they did. Private Nathan Hughes, badly wounded in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., was not only welcomed into the Yorkville GAR post, but also served as an officer. His grandchildren became the first black people to graduate from high school in the county, and his great-great-great grandchildren went on to become college professors.

Interestingly enough, during those early years,it was often impossible to tell from the local weekly newspaper whether the subjects of local news articles were black or white. It wasn’t until the post World War I xenophobia kicked in that widespread racism and ethnic bigotry gained a foothold in Kendall County. The slide was so complete that the once-color blind local press joined in and in the 1920s the KKK even had some affiliate groups in the county.

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, in terms of racism and ethnic bigotry, Kendall County has largely gotten back to where it was a century ago. Whether progress or regression, that seems like a good thing.

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Our government: Know it, live it, love it

Saw a piece over on Jonathan Turley’s blog reporting that 64 percent of Americans can’t identify the three branches of government.

Does that seem as odd to you as it does to me? Ever since the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were approved by the people of the several states, state and federal governments have been working hard to educate the citizens about their own government. Granted, those efforts have flagged recently—and if you believe that survey Jon Turley quoted, they’ve flagged considerably—but early in the country’s history, educating folks about their government was a priority.

That’s why local newspapers could be mailed free early in the country’s history, with the goal being to make sure the voters were actually informed about the issues of the day. Which is also why all those post offices popped up all over the country, closely following the frontier as it moved west, and also why those stagecoach lines got government subsidies to carry mail and passengers.

The idea led to establishing public education. The goal was partly to improve the people’s education, but it was more to create an informed electorate. Around my area of northern Illinois, the earliest schools established by pioneer families were subscription schools, funded by the private subscriptions of the parents of school-age children. Public funding of schools didn’t really start until state law allowed levying property taxes to finance public schools in 1850.

Way back when I was in high school a century after that, the idea behind teaching public school students still included creating an informed electorate. Which is why the U.S. History course our junior year of high school hit the constitutions of both the U.S. and Illinois so hard.

Our teacher that year drummed a major idea into our heads. To understand the U.S. Government (and to get through college social studies when the time came), we needed to know three fundamental U.S. Supreme Court cases: Marbury vs. Madison, Munn vs. Illinois, and McCullough vs. Maryland. The ideas those three cases introduced into our government were so fundamental that he insisted on quizzing us on them the rest of the year.

And he was right. Those three cases really formed the basis for much of how our system of government has evolved. Because despite what people like Antonin Scalia seem to believe, the U.S. Constitution really is an ever-evolving document, not something monolithic or static. After all, after the Constitution was adopted by the states, what’s the first thing the framers did? They amended it. Ten times. And thank goodness for their foresight.

So what, exactly, do those three Supreme Court decisions say, and why are they so important? Thought you’d never ask. Here’s a brief rundown for those of you who did not take U.S. History from Gerner Anderson back in 1963.

President John Adams

President John Adams

1. Marbury vs. Madison: John Adams was in a snit. He’d just been beaten in the race for President in 1800, so he wouldn’t be serving a second term. Not only that, but he was beaten by Thomas Jefferson, whose Democrat-Republican political philosophy was 180 degrees removed from Adams’ Federalism. In order to preserve Federalist power, Adams appointed, on his last day in office, 82 federal judges, all of whom were Federalists. This gang of “Midnight Judges,” as the pro-Jefferson press dubbed them, were rightly seen by Jefferson as a backdoor way of imposing Federalist policies on his administration for decades to come. As a result, Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to hold the official commissions of some of the judges in question, one of which was William Marbury. Marbury proceeded directly to the U.S. Supreme Court and applied for an order directing Madison to deliver his judicial commission.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall knew a political hot potato when he saw one, and he realized he had to act with care in order to both do the right thing and maintain the integrity and the authority of the Supreme Court. There was a danger that Madison and Jefferson would simply refuse to comply if Marshall ordered them to comply with the Judiciary Act of 1789 and deliver Marbury’s commission. So instead, Marshall looked at the act itself, and determined it was in violation of the Constitution because it forced the intrusion of the judicial branch into the prerogatives of the executive branch. The result of Marshall’s decision was to establish the principle of judicial review, which to this day confers on the Supreme Court the responsibility of determining which legislative acts are constitutional. And, it involved all three of those branches of government that most Americans are apparently ignorant of.

2. McCullough vs. Maryland: The State of Maryland was not at all pleased by the formation of the new Second Bank of the United States. As a result, Maryland decided to levy taxes against all banks not chartered by the state—which, as a Federal bank, the Second Bank of the United States was not. Since the Bank of the United States also happened to be the only non-chartered bank operating in Maryland, it was clear the new tax was specifically aimed at the federal bank.

James W. McCullough was in charge of the newly opened Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States, and he refused to pay the tax. A private citizen sued the Federal bank in Maryland court, charging McCullough with non-payment of taxes—and also angling for the substantial reward Maryland law allowed for finding banks not in compliance. The argument was that the U.S. Constitution did not specifically mention banks and therefore was not allowed to participate in banking and therefore that the Second Bank of the United States was unconstitutional. Maryland’s courts agreed, and the matter was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court overturned the state court’s decision, and in what became one of the most important decisions for our form of government, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that, first, the Constitution’s Section 8, Clause 18, the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” gave the Federal government all the power it needed to establish a bank, even though banking is never mentioned in the Constitution itself. Second, Marshall wrote, the states do not have any special sovereignty because they approved the Constitution. That’s because, Marshall wrote, the people, not the states, ratified the Constitution. Third, Marshall found Maryland’s attempt to tax the Federal government unconstitutional, famously writing that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,” which was what Maryland was trying to do to the Second Bank of the United States.

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River controlled by Ira Munn.

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River controlled by Ira Munn.

3. Munn vs. Illinois: The 1870s were a volatile time in the Midwest. The financial Panic of 1873 was seriously affecting farmers. In addition, powerful railroads were brutally squeezing the region’s farmers, charging exorbitant and unfair fees to ship grain to market and to ship coal into communities who needed it to heat their homes and power steam engines for factories and farms. Farmers joined together, forming associations including Grange lodges and other groups, to fight against what they considered economic tyranny. In response, powered by a progressive surge led by farmers and workers, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing the state to set the maximum rates railroads could charge to ship grain and that grain elevators could charge to store it.

Chicago grain merchant Ira Munn sued on behalf of grain combines and the railroads, contending government didn’t have the power to meddle in commercial activities—which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound much different from the arguments plutocrats are still making to this day.

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877, however, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, writing for a 7-2 majority, ruled that government does have a legitimate interest in regulating commercial activities that affect the public interest. Further, the decision allowed for the regulation of interstate commerce as a legitimate function of the Federal government, opening the way for such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I’ve often wondered if our march towards plutocracy might have been different if Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito had had Gerner Anderson for U.S. History when they were in high school. I’m guessing probably not, because there seems to be a problem among the right wing doing the right thing coupled with doing what’s best for the most people, which amounts to almost a genetic predisposition to attack those perceived to be weak. But we should thank our lucky stars that John Marshall and Morrison Waite were on the court when they were instead of those three. Otherwise, we’d be living in a very different America today.

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