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This family reunion a living link to pioneer prairie farmers

It was a beautiful day last Sunday to hold a family reunion, so it’s lucky that’s what my clan was up to.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. around 55 members of the related Lantz and Stoner families got together to chat and have a wonderful potluck dinner, just as they’ve been doing for the last 90 years. The first reunion was held in 1927 at my great-grandparents’ former farm—at the time it was worked by one of their sons—and 127 relatives showed up for the fun. We’ve met every summer since at various places. Although the place has changed from time to time, the reunion’s been held on the second Sunday in August since 1936.

Although there’s only one active farming family in the clan these days, there were some retired farmers in the crowd Sunday.

When the reunion got started, farmers predominated. And, in fact, that first reunion was held “the Sunday after the plowing match,” the minutes of the meeting state. Which plowing match? The Wheatland Plowing Match, of course. And what’s a plowing match? Well, there’s a story there.

The Lantz and Stoner families are both of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock. Baltzer Lantz arrived in 1752 and eventually settled in Lancaster in southeast Pennsylvania. A mason by trade, he helped build forts during the French and Indian War and founded a family that would go on to spread west, first to the tallgrass prairies in Illinois, then to the shortgrass Kansas plains, and finally all the way to the Pacific shore.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape where the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held looks more like Nebraska than northern Illinois in his Malcolm Rance photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

A century after Baltzer arrived aboard the ship Phoenix at Philadelphia harbor, his descendants loaded up their wagons and headed west to pioneer new land between the DuPage and Fox rivers in northern Illinois. The prairies of Will County’s Wheatland Township were so treeless they resembled more the flat Nebraska plains than land you’d expect to see in northern Illinois. As a result of that lack of timber, much of that rich land was still unclaimed in 1850 when the Lantz family, along with the Slicks and Shaals and Stoners and others made their way west. Settlement had demanded a lot of timber for building log cabins and outbuildings, splitting into rails for the miles of fences needed, for firewood, and for crafting looms and other tools needed to survive on the frontier. But by 1850, balloon framing using sawn lumber instead of log construction had been invented and was in increasingly wide use in northern Illinois. So houses and barns and machine sheds rose on the prairie with the work of those Pennsylvania Dutchmen and their families.

At the same time, an influx of Scots and English farmers, along with a number of German farmers direct from Germany was also taking place. From the Oswego Prairie east of that village, all the way to the DuPage River, the rich black soil was soon being turned by horse-drawn plows and planted in corn, wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

The groups seemed to work well together, too. The Germans from Germany spoke no English, but they fit right in with the Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of which still spoke German at home. So prevalent were German-speaking folks around about Naperville in the 19th Century that J.L. Nichols—academic, printer, and namesake of Naperville’s Nichols Library—found it profitable in 1891 to publish The Business Guide, or Safe Methods of Business, a book with instructions in both German and English on how to draw up legal documents such as bills of sale and deeds in each language. I donated my family’s copy of Nichols’ book to the Naperville Heritage Society in 2012.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This image of the 1915 Wheatland Plowing Match shows some of the tents for the dining and exhibition areas. By this time, autos were replacing horses and buggies. (Little White School Museum photo)

The British and Scots farmers also settled in with their German-speaking neighbors, and the entire neighborhood became a real community. The great contribution of the Brits and Scots was the introduction of the latest scientific farming methods that had been perfected across the Atlantic. From proper drainage of wetlands to increase arable land to the introduction of blooded breeding livestock to the best and most efficient way to till the soil, farmers like the Pattersons, Stewarts, and Kings introduced the latest thinking. And the result of that was, a couple decades after they arrived, establishing the Wheatland Plowing Match in 1876.

A combined county fair and precision plowing competition, the annual event drew thousands to the Wheatland prairie each September, which placed it in the relative down time after the harvest of small grains and before the big corn harvest. The Sept. 11, 1879 Kendall County Record gave a good rundown of specifics behind the annual event’s competition:

There will be a plowing match on the farm of William King in Wheatland, Will county, just east of Oswego township Saturday, September 20th. Said match will be open to all residents of the town.

Straightness, neatness, and evenness of furrow to be considered. No plowing to be less than six inches deep.

Each plow will be required to finish three quarters of an acre in three and one-half hours. Plowing is to commence at 9 o’clock, a.m., sharp.

Sulky and gang plows will be exhibited by the agents of different manufactories and tested at 2 o’clock.

Judges of the walking plows: Henry Mussey, Thomas Stewart, George Leppert.

Judges of riding plows: Thomas Varley, Wm. Sillers, and Zach Fry.

The competition continued until 1976. After that, the Wheatland Plowing Match Association continued in business for several years promoting the history of prairie farming in Wheatland Township until they disbanded in 2014, turning over their records and funds to the Naperville Heritage Society.

2016 Reunion

The food tables at the 2016 Lantz-Stoner Family Reunion after folks have filled their plates the first time. The related families held their 90th annual reunion Aug. 13 in Oswego.

Those Pattersons who started the plowing match soon married into the Pennsylvania Dutch farming families, including my own and in the 1890s, the plowing match was held on my great-grandfather’s farm.

As a result of all that intermarrying, when that first family reunion was held in 1927, there were all sorts of families represented from the Pattersons and Lantzes to the Boughtons and Books and a number of others who are memorialized in the names of roads in DuPage, Will, and Kendall counties.

Today, those flat, rich prairies are growing mostly homes, roads, schools, and businesses. Farmers are slowly being squeezed farther and farther west as development starts picking up once again following the big housing bust of 2008. In a way, I guess, our family reunion represents a sort of social memory of that vibrant era of prairie farming when the land and the people were both new, and eager to do the absolute best they could in their chosen profession tilling the soil.

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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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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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Bicycling all the way to women’s rights

The Matile Manse sits right on the Fox River Trail about a half-mile north of its current southern terminus at Oswego’s Hudson Crossing Park. Every day the weather permits, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of pedestrians and cyclists pass by, and all of them seem to be having good times.

The family ramblers are a happy bunch, sometimes pushing strollers or holding hands. The runners, however, all seem to have somewhat pained looks on their faces. But the bicyclists seem the happiest. From family groups herding youngsters on gaily hued bikes to couples easing along on their cruisers to the high-tech folks on their sleek recumbents to the rare tandem, they all whiz by with smiles on their faces. Even the guys and girls with garish spandex duds and aerodynamic helmets seem to have a happy, though sometimes grimly determined look in their eyes and they speed past.

Bicycling has become an extremely popular leisure-time activity in the U.S. for all ages. According to the data I’ve seen, some 100 million Americans bike sometime during the year. And it’s not all just for fun, either. Nearly a million Americans commute to work by bike these days.

But like everything else, cycling had to start somewhere. And around these parts, it was in 1880. The “Oswego” column of the Sept. 16, 1880 Kendall County Record reported something completely different: “Clint Gaylord bicycled our streets Saturday; he came from home and returned in the same manner.”

The Gaylord farm was out on the Plainfield-Oswego Road, and Gaylord pedaled about five miles into Oswego on his new machine.

Wheelman and his wheel

A wheelman and his wheel, about 1890.

The whole cycling craze of the late 19th Century had its genesis with Frenchman Eugène Meyer, who perfected the tensioned wire spoke wheel in 1869. Then English inventor James Stanley perfected the familiar high-wheeled design that became known as the Ordinary. Here in the U.S., Civil War veteran Albert Pope started manufacturing Columbia high-wheelers in a factory just outside Boston in 1878. It was just two years later when Clint Gaylord pedaled into Oswego to see what he could see.

The high-wheeler was not easy to ride. Consisting of a giant front wheel some five feet in diameter and a tiny rear wheel, the operator had to push it in a running start, and then nimbly climb aboard the seat using two pegs on the frame just above the small rear wheel to reach the pedals, which were attached to a crankshaft that formed the hub of the front wheel. No coaster brakes on these bad boys; you just had to keep pedaling or you’d fall over.

From the start, the things were formally called bicycles, but were most often called wheels, and their operators were dubbed wheelmen. Given the acrobatics needed to climb aboard one, and the long, heavy dresses of the day, women riders were vanishingly rare.

By 1884, bicycling was becoming ever more popular. In July of that year, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Thomas Stevens, the man from San Francisco on his way around the world on a bicycle, passed through here the other day. Another bicyclist, namely Harry West of Wichita, Kansas (son of Wm. West, formerly of this place) is here on a visit at his uncle’s, W.H. McConnell. He works the bicycle very easily and gracefully.”

By the summer of 1887, Rank could report that “Oswego has now several quite expert bicyclists.”

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

Wheelman Joe Sierp (right) and Slade Cutter Sr. pose with their wheels at Oswego about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

One of those experts was Oswego native and Aurora business owner Joe Sierp. Sierp spent a lot of time with Oswego friends, so his love of cycling fit right in with his lifestyle, which included joining the Aurora Bicycle Club. “Nine bicyclists of Aurora came to town one evening; they were joined by Joe Sierp on his wheel and an extensive and imposing ride was enjoyed in our streets,” Rank wrote in the summer of 1888.

Within a decade or so, cycling had become a national craze, which led, oddly enough, to pressure for more and better roads in the nation and Illinois. Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then respectable distance of 100 miles in one day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling on his wheel. That led to the demand of a number of influential people for better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther. At about this same time, the same people were buying horseless carriages and wanted roads on which to drive them.

Safety bicycle

Standard safety bicycle with chain drive and pneumatic tires (introduced in 1888) that produced a bicycling and social revolution.

But that was in the future. While the wheelmen enjoyed their status as men among men, women who wanted to pedal their own bicycles were out of luck until the perfection of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. British engineer Harry Lawson designed the first safety in 1876, featuring two wheels of equal diameter—thus making it lots safer to ride than the ordinary (and thus its name). But it was propelled with a clumsy treadle system that limited its usefulness. But then in 1879, Lawson perfected the design by using pedals on a crankshaft with a sprocket that turned a chain that powered the rear wheel. It would be nearly a decade before the safety made it across the Atlantic to the U.S.

Men, however, still loved their wheels, despite how difficult they were to operate. In the summer of 1893, the Record reported from Oswego that “The road race of the Aurora cyclists Wednesday was attended with some accidents near here. One met a tumble right below town by which he lost a portion of his skin, and another broke down his wheel just after having crossed the bridge. The hurt cyclist was taken home by J.H. Reed in his buggy.”

Bicycling was not only a leisure activity, but had increasing business uses as well. In the autumn of 1897, the Record reported from Yorkville that “We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality.”

So common were high-wheelers that one of them was involved in one of Kendall County’s earliest road rage incidents. In October 1898, Chris Henne was driving his horse and wagon home to his farm from Oswego after having enjoyed the hospitality of one or more of the village’s saloons. Driving his rig erratically west on modern U.S. Route 34, he first ran the driver of the local ice delivery wagon off the road, and then did the same thing to a wheelman who was eastbound to Oswego. Unfortunately for Henne, the wheelman was armed. He climbed back aboard his wheel, caught up with Henne, and shot and killed the farmer as he sped past. The vengeful wheelman was never caught.

Wheelmen race

League of American Wheelmen last sanctioned high-wheel race in Chicago, 1893, probably at Washington Park Racetrack. (Chicagology web site: https://chicagology.com/cycling/)

Century rides and county fair high-wheel races became common entertainments during the 1890s. But after their U.S. introduction in 1887, those safety bikes were slowly making inroads, mostly because women could use them right alongside their male friends. In the June 3, 1891 Record, Rank noted that “Coming down the road by Squires [modern U.S. Route 34] to this place and returning on the west side of the river is a much-frequented route of the Aurorians for a pleasure drive on Sundays. On the last, a party of four each of ladies and gentlemen on bicycles came also over that route. Ladies will have to get a new costume for that purpose in order to look graceful on bicycles.”

And there Rank made an observation of some portent. While women were anxious to enjoy the freedom of cycling, they were constrained not only by the social conventions of the time, but also by the fashion dictates of the era. Long, heavy skirts, corsets, and voluminous undergarments all conspired against cycling, even on the user-friendly safeties. But the urge to glide off on their bikes to the freedom of the open road was so strong that it soon led to major changes in everything from women’s wardrobes to social rules of how single men and women interacted away from the confines of chaperones.

The changes were so profound that Susan B. Anthony remarked to investigative journalist Nelly Bly in an 1896 interview: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Locally, women’s strong attraction to bicycling was chronicled in the local press, and that included the controversy over female cyclists’ new use of loose pantaloons called bloomers. Bloomers had been a hallmark of the original women’s rights agitators in the 1850s, but quickly fell out of fashion. But by the 1890s, there was not only an ideological reason to wear them, but a practical one, too.

1896 abt Haines, Irvin

Irvin Haines’s self-portrait with his safety bicycle about 1896 (note the twine running from his foot into the foreground to trip the shutter). The photo was taken along Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

In June 1895, the Record’s Bristol correspondent remarked: “While lying in my hammock today two ladies rode by on bicycles, dressed in bloomers (the first I have seen), and I thought why this hue and cry against that style of dress. I cannot see anything improper about them….If riding a bicycle is healthy for woman and the dress skirt is in the way, that surely is the best costume.” And, in fact, bloomers quickly became a signature of the growing women’s rights movement—thus Anthony’s remark to Nelly Bly.

For his part, Rank couldn’t figure out what the bloomer hubbub was all about, commenting in August 1895: “According to those newspaper fellows that are commenting on bloomers, it would appear that all what makes women pretty is their dress. Don’t mind those fellows.”

A month later, in a comment with surprisingly modern overtones, he was still contending it was silly to judge people by the way they dressed.

“The ‘new woman’ is for independence; she will require the man to make himself attractive and that not merely by his clothes; she is for being no more anxious of getting left than the man shall be. In short, she is for the enjoyment of equal privileges. Again, beauty, grace, taste, and style are to a great extent mere notions, cultivated conceptions. Old style costumes look ridiculous now, but they were pretty and tasty when in fashion,” he suggested, adding a political note referring to the looming Spanish-American War, “That bloomers were downed 30 years ago is no reason why they should not succeed now. Many good things fail in their first effort; the Cubans have been defeated heretofore in several revolts, but that is no reason that they should not succeed now.”

As a way to make a practical statement of freedom, it was hard to beat a woman’s bicycle. They were relatively inexpensive and were easy to care for. It wasn’t long before they became not just pleasure vehicles but also work transportation.

Searching for a way to describe this newfangled trend, Rank commented in March 1895: “Edith Edwards has become a bicyclestrain.”

1918 Henry and Gertie Heffelfinger

By 1918 bicycles were passe, and motorcycles and automobiles were in, as Gertie and Henry Heffelfinger get ready for an outing. (Little White School Museum collection)

Adding in September of that year that “Misses Cora and Ella Willis, engaged in Aurora, were seen several times in town on their bicycles.” A year after that, he noted that biking to work by at least one of the community’s one-room schoolteachers was the latest thing, “Anna Robinson commenced to teach the school in the Wormley district last Monday and got herself a bicycle for journeying to and from it.”

Throughout the balance of the 19th Century, well into the first decades of the 20th Century, women’s use of bicycles for transportation to work and as a leisure activity continued to grow until that was supplanted by the automobile craze.

But bicycling never entirely went away. Always popular among youngsters—I still fondly remember my first bike, a used blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower for $5—bicycling is booming again as people look for the freedom of coasting along on their bikes. And today, millions upon millions of women in the United States regularly bike, thanks, in part, to a leisure craze that turned out to be a route to women’s social and political freedom.

 

 

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No need to drive: When we took the trolley to our neighborhood amusement park

As the calendar moves steadily towards summer, area residents are looking forward to a season when entertainment opportunities seem to be never-ending. From community celebrations like Oswego’s PrairieFest to Yorkville and Plano’s Hometown Days, to Montgomery’s MontgomeryFest to community swimming pools to family reunions and picnics, there’s always plenty to enjoy here at home.

Of course lots of local folks also enjoy traveling to some of the Midwest’s theme parks to enjoy roller coasters and all the other amusement rides that only show up locally when carnivals briefly visit.

Fox River Park siteAt the turn of the 20th Century, though, Kendall County residents didn’t have to drive for hours or wait for the next carnival to arrive to enjoy amusement rides. Rather, all they had to do was come up with the five cent fare for the interurban trolley ride to extreme northeast Oswego Township, just south of Montgomery, where Riverview Park stood along the west bank of the Fox River. Today, the park grounds are an expanse of grass and mature trees, the former location of a massive manufacturing plant operated by AT&T Technologies. The plant was demolished in 1997, returning the land back to the grassy oak and hickory savanna it was more than a century ago.

The amusement park and the interurban trolley line from Aurora to Yorkville were built at the same time. Indeed, both trolley and park depended upon each other for financial survival.

In April 1897, Ill. State Sen. Henry Evans of Aurora incorporated the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway Company with the goal of connecting Morris on the Illinois River with Aurora, the terminus of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroads suburban service, and an important stop on the CB&Q’s main line.

Interurban trolleys powered by overhead electrical wires were the nation’s first mass transit system that served large metropolitan areas as well as rural areas. Starting in the last two decades of the 19th century, a web of interurban lines was built crisscrossing the nation, connecting villages and cities across the country, and along the way providing convenient passenger links to thousands of farm families. At one time, it was possible to ride, using transfers, from the Mississippi River to the East Coast wholly on interurban cars.

While Sen. Evans’ proposed line was to be just one strand in this interurban web, it was nonetheless an important one for the Fox Valley and Kendall County. In the days before paved roads, it was often impossible for residents to travel other than by rail during certain seasons of the year. That was especially true of rural residents.

The new trolley line aimed to help with that problem. The right-of-way for the line left Aurora on the west side of the river, and proceeded south to the end of River Street in Montgomery. From there the tracks passed under the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch line tracks just south of Montgomery, and then followed the river south paralleling today’s Ill. Route 31. At the intersection of today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego, the tracks turned east and crossed the Fox River on the Oswego bridge. At the top of today’s Washington Street hill, the tracks turned south again, running down the middle of Oswego’s Main Street to modern Ill. Route 71, which they followed to Van Emmon Road. The trolley line then curved toward Yorkville, paralleling Van Emmon Road the line’s southern terminus at Van Emmon and Bridge Street—today’s Ill. Route 47.

1911 FR Park mapSome portions of the old track bed are still visible along Route 31 if you know where to look, and are quite obvious along Van Emmon Road.

Actual construction on the trolley line began during the summer of 1899, with construction of the affiliated amusement park beginning at the same time.

Many of the nation’s interurban lines used the lure of amusement parks located along their rights-of-way to persuade people to ride the trolley on low-ridership weekends and holidays. Since electrical service was necessary for the trolley cars, it was also available to power amusement rides and bright electric lights at the parks. Along with Kendall County’s Riverview Park, other interurban-connected parks in the area included, in 1904, Electric Park along the DuPage River in Plainfield and, later, Exposition Park on Aurora’s north side.

1905 FR Park birdseye color crop

Hand-colored postcard view of the Riverview Park trolley station, taken from the top of the auditorium about 1904. (Little White School Museum collection)

By November of 1899, the trolley tracks had been extended from Aurora to the park site, and on Tuesday, Nov. 7, the first special trolley cars began operating. According to press reports, Montgomery was decorated with flags to greet the 500 people who showed up for the dedication ceremonies. The park, which Evans’ company named Riverview for its location on the banks of the Fox, cost $104,403.03 to build, plus $1,200 for auditorium seats.

In October 1900 the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported the first Aurora, Yorkville & Morris trolley car had reached Oswego, and by December the line was completed to Yorkville. The completion of the line to Kendall County’s seat of government not only opened up a variety of economic opportunities for everyone living along the line, but it also provided entertainment opportunities for thousands of rural families.

1905 FR Park map blue river

Fox River Park map, 1905

Although it closed each winter, Riverview Park was open for spring, summer, and fall activities each year. In 1900, more than 2,000 persons rode the trolley on the park’s opening day. And it didn’t diminish much in popularity as the summer wore on. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on July 18 that “Riverview Park has become very popular with our people. Small parties of both the old and the young frequently spend the afternoon there on fine days.”

By the early summer of 1900 the Aurora & Geneva Railway interurban line had been finished, completing the missing trolley link between Aurora and Elgin, drawing even more visitors south to Riverview Park from upriver towns.

The Record reported that during a game in August, 1906, “A disgraceful slugging match took place Sunday afternoon at Riverview Park, during the playing of the Elgin-Aurora baseball game when, it is alleged, the umpire was unmercifully beaten over the head with clubs and umbrellas.”

1912 FR Park with coaster

From the time it opened, the roller coaster was one of Fox River Park’s most popular attractions. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aurora’s pro baseball team played at the park for a couple years, reportedly with the legendary Casey Stengel on the squad.

Other more sedate entertainment on the park side included visiting the Penny Arcade and the park photographer, or picnicking on the wooded grounds.

On a good weekend during the height of the summer season, as many as 5,000 people a day visited Riverview Park.

Within a few years, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with the new, and much larger, Riverview Park that had been built in 1904 on a 74-acre site at Belmont and Western in Chicago.

1911 FR Riverview Park boats

A bridge connected the small island just offshore in the Fox River with the rest of the park, providing a place for visitors to enjoy boating. (Little White School Museum collection)

Area residents made frequent use of the park, not only to take advantage of the permanent attractions, but also to attend the annual Chautaquas held there every summer that drew some of the era’s best-known speakers. In 1903, speakers included Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, U.S. Rep. Champ Clark of Missouri, and labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Subsequent years’ Chautaquas featured such well-known personalities as African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington and fire and brimstone evangelist (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday.

1911 FR Park shoot the chutes close

Adventurous visitors could ride the shoot the chutes down a steep incline into the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Residents could rent space in tents on the park grounds and stay for however long that year’s event ran. Most Fox River Park Chautaquas had a ten-day or two-week run.

The concept became so popular that the area’s black residents decided to hold their own event, apparently a novel thing in those de facto segregated days. The July 5, 1911 Record announced that: “You are cordially invited to attend the first Chautauqua ever held by colored people in the north at Fox River Park Tuesday and Wednesday, July 11 and 12, 1911. Entertainment will include a grand concert of 200 voices of the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] churches of Chicago and baseball, Leland Giants of Chicago vs. Deppens of Atlanta, Ga., two of the greatest colored teams in America.”

1911 FR Park boating.jpg

This hand-colored 1903 postcard showing visitors boating at Riverview Park almost looks like it was a French impressionist painting. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1920s, however, the park’s facilities were getting rundown. The area’s new roads and the increasing use of automobiles meant that those visiting along the banks of the Fox were not only local folks riding to the park on trolley cars. As the Record reported on Sept. 15, 1920: “Sheriff Hextell arrested three men from Chicago Sunday for operating a chuck-a-luck game at Fox River Park. They had driven out from the city and were in the midst of their gambling when the sheriff nabbed them. They were fined $25 and costs each before Magistrate Skinner Monday and the sheriff has some of their diamonds as security for the fines, to be paid the last of the week. Through the efforts of Sheriff Hextell, the park has been remarkable free from gambling. This is only one of many instances when Hextell has brought in gamblers from the park.”

In fact, Henry Ford’s idea to use an assembly line to produce inexpensive automobiles (he invented neither the assembly line nor the automobile but perfected both) affordable by working families eventually killed the interurban trolley industry, along with their associated amusement parks as collateral damage. Autos for the first time gave common people the freedom to travel previously enjoyed only by the rich, and distant attractions proved more popular than small homegrown amusement parks.

As the quality of the park declined, so, apparently did its clientele. On July 6, 1921, a Record editorial complained: “It is time the people of Kendall county woke up to the realization of the moral character of Fox River Park. The sheriff has done his best with what he has to work with to keep order in the place. It is time for Kendall county officials to get some action and protect the morals of the county as well as the reputation of their legal representative, Sheriff Hextell.”

In the end, it turned out Ford’s Model T’s were more potent as moral guardians than the county sheriff, and due to the economics of the situation, both the interurban trolley line and Fox River Park were abandoned in 1925.

Today, the stately hardwood trees shading the old vacant AT&T plant grounds are all that remain of the park enjoyed by so many during those summers more than a century ago.

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Days of youthful dawdling mostly a thing of the past…

I’ve always felt a little boredom for kids is a good thing.

Back, lo those many years ago when I was a kid, boredom wasn’t something we complained about. Today’s parents are apparently terrified their kids will complain about being bored. Back in the day, I knew better than to tell my parents I was bored, because they would have found plenty for me to do, pretty much none of which I would have been excited about.

These days, though, parents apparently feel their kids need to be scheduled 24/7 doing all manner of things, not to mention running themselves ragged in the attempt to avoid the dreaded “Mommm, I’m bored.”

As noted above, admitting to boredom would have been a deadly mistake back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so we made sure we always had something to do, or at least made it look like we had something to do. And without all of today’s frenetic scheduling, there was plenty of time for one of our all-time favorite pastimes—dawdling.

1950-abt-roger-bob-crop

Not sure what my cousin Bob (right) and I did, but knowing the two of us, it probably involved dawdling followed by a stern lecture from our Aunt Evelyn.

In fact, I believe dawdling was one of the high points of my life as a child here in the Oswego area, although I admit my parents sometimes did not exactly share my love of the practice.

We dawdled on the way to school and on the way home from school, as well as when sent on any sort of mission by our parents.

But it was those before and after school times that seemed best.

When I went to Church School out in Wheatland Township, we did a lot of serious dawdling on the way home from classes. After we got television sets and had our first look at the original “Adventures of Superman” series starring George Reeves, my buddy Rob and I decided that episode where Superman turned coal into diamonds by using “super pressure” had all sorts of possibilities; Superman did it, after all, so why couldn’t we? Finding a piece of coal wasn’t difficult in those years, but applying the “super pressure” was. We approached the problem by piling the biggest rocks we could find on top of the coal. Each day as we dawdled past the rock pile on the way home from school, we’d check to see if the lump of coal had turned into a diamond. I suspect the coal is still buried there beside Heggs Road awaiting super pressure that never came.

After I moved to town, the areas in which to dawdle increased geometrically. In order to get to and from school, we had to cross Waubonsie Creek, which was—and from what I see these days still is—an irresistible magnet for dawdlers.

We considered the creek valley, from North Adams street to the Route 25 bridge as our own private preserve. There was always something to do there, no matter what season of the year it was.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

About 1910, a bunch of kids engage in serious dawdling along the same stretch of Waubonsie Creek where we dawdled in the 1950s. In this shot, looks like there are more rocks than water in the creek. (Little White School Museum collections)

In the summertime, we’d build dams and try to catch the Red Horse that came upstream from the river. In the fall, we’d skip flat stones across the still waters behind the present Oswego Library. In the wintertime, we’d fool around on the ice, when it was thick enough, or pretend to be arctic explorers trudging through North Pole snowdrifts. In the spring, our fancy would tum to collecting fossils washing out of the bluegreen Maquoketa shale outcrop near the CB&Q railroad bridge.

One winter evening on the way home from school, my friend was standing with one foot on the creek shore and the other on an ice-covered rock a short distance from shore, vigorously shifting back and forth as he tried to dislodge the rock, which was stuck to the creek bottom. But then the rock suddenly gave way, shooting out from under his foot, which had all his weight on it. Physics being what they are, he was launched into the air, doing a complete airborne somersault before landing, sitting down, in the middle of the creek. Personally, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen, although his view was somewhat different.

I never had my own paper route, but I was always friendly with our paperboys, and found them excellent dawdling companions, which is perhaps one reason I don’t get too terribly upset when our paper is late nowadays.

1952-roger-rob

My buddy Rob and I tried to turn a lump of coal into a diamond for several months in 1953 while dawdling on the way home from school. Above, we consort with our dogs and a box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (the TV sponsor for “Adventures of Superman”) for emergency nutrition.

It was his own fault, but one winter day our dawdling got the better of our then-current paperboy, one of my elementary school classmates. He had decided to do a monster walk across a large brush pile near the street. As he walked like Frankenstein’s monster, growling, over top of the brush pile, his feet suddenly broke through and he was up to his hips in brush. Unfortunately—for him—a broken stick in the pile was pointed upwards directly at a particularly sensitive area of his anatomy. I did my best as he screamed for me to rescue him. I really did. But it’s hard to move frozen, broken tree parts when you’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts.

My parents were largely understanding when it came to dawdling. As long as I was home for supper, no one seemed to care. In fact, I came to suspect that my father was a dawdler when he was a youngster. Unfortunately, it’s too late to find out about that now; like so many other things, I’d like to get his take on the subject.

Unfortunately, things have changed over the last 60 years when it comes to allowing children to have fun by doing nothing at all. Often for good reason, most parents fear to have their children wandering around loose these days. There are simply too many nuts around and too many other dangerous things for children to get involved in.

It’s a shame when innocent activities—like dawdling near a local creek—that are real learning experiences are all too often unavailable to modern kids because of fears for their safety, even if those fears are well founded. It is one of the prices we must pay as we continue to grow, I suppose, but it often seems as if it’s an awfully high one.

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Small-town America’s search for fun

Big doings in town this week as Oswegoans gird their loins for our annual PrairieFest community celebration.

Oswego’s annual community festival has gone through a lot of iterations since downtown business owners started trying to draw customers to their stores back in the 1930s with free movies projected on a white canvass stretched on the wall of Ralph Johnson’s Oswego Tavern. It was the height (or perhaps the depths) of the Great Depression, and free entertainment was extremely popular among folks beset by financial catastrophe.

1933 Centennial drill team

The Joliet Auxiliary Drill Team, first prize winners in the drill team competition during the Oswego Centennial Parade on Sept. 16, 1933, in downtown Oswego proudly show off their trophy in front of the Oswego Tavern. Free movies were projected on a canvas screen mounted on the right side of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in the June 20, 1934 edition: “Free [movie] shows are given each Wednesday night, sponsored by the merchants of Oswego. Last Wednesday evening more than 600 attended.”

Since Oswego’s 1930 population was just 934 men, women, and children, drawing 600 people to town on a warm summer Wednesday evening suggested a lot of people were hungry for a little escapism in their lives during a particularly dark period of the nation’s history.

From that economically-driven start, business owners sponsored a variety of annual celebrations that offered some fun, but which were mostly efforts at drawing paying customers downtown. Eventually, civic groups joined in and promoted the addition of an annual carnival that was set up right on Main Street downtown. And that planted the first seeds of opposition to drawing crowds downtown since business owners weren’t getting much of the action. A new home was found for the annual carnivals, but the business community continued to view drawing large crowds downtown with puzzling suspicion. After all, you’d think that attracting a big crowd of prospective customers to the sidewalk outside your store would be a good thing, but the resistance to what became called Oswego

2005 dragon ride scream

Photographer Joanne Pleskovich perfectly captured the exuberant terror experienced by two excited little girls on the Dragon ride at PrairieFest 2005. Kids of all ages will again be entertained this weekend at PrairieFest 2016 here in Oswego. (Ledger-Sentinel photo)

Days continued to grow, until the Oswego Business Association finally washed their hands of sponsoring the thing. And that’s when the Oswegoland Park District stepped in, renamed it PrairieFest, and proceeded to move the most heavily attended activities out of downtown. Which also caused grumbling by downtown business owners that none of the crowds were now coming downtown.

The effort to find something to do in small towns all over the country has been a seemingly never ending task. Nowadays, of course, there are almost too many things to do, something that has led to the disappearance of many of civic and fraternal organizations as life became too busy for people to take time out of their schedules to enjoy the camaraderie they offered. The myriad of entertainment options for youngsters, especially, has exploded in recent decades.

Time was, small town and rural America was a boring place for all too many youngsters. And when suitable recreation does not exist, delinquent youngsters usually take matters into their own hands, something they’ve been doing for a long, long time. For instance, the July 21, 1864 Kendall County Record reported: “Three boys from Oswego crept into one of the school houses in NaAuSay and tore up and destroyed [a large] amount of books. They were arrested [and]..lodged in the jail at the Court House [in Yorkville], having been bound over before the Circuit Court.”

So much for lack of crime in the good old days when Traditional Family Values reigned supreme.

And how about public disturbances caused by entertainment getting out of hand? Well, try on this item from the Feb. 4, 1869 Record: “The Dance at Chapman Hall on Friday night was a pleasant affair but there was an afterpiece of a quite contrary nature. It seems Mark Chapman refused to sell a ticket to Bob Jolly. Bob, being highly incensed at not being able to dance and share in the fun, provided himself with a club and waited for Mark outside. As he came out on the sidewalk, he was set upon by Bob and pretty severely beaten. Bob is under arrest.”

When calmer entertainment was attempted, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

19th Century hearse

It took two years for Oswego’s Union Sewing Society raise enough money to buy the community a hearse through fundraising events such as peach festivals  before they finally reached their goal in 1872.

For instance, the Sept. 30, 1869 Record reported: “The Oswego Union Sewing Society’s peach festival of last week was not well attended; the proceeds of it are to go towards buying a hearse. But this generation need not expect the benefits of one unless funds for the same are raised by some other means.”

A peach festival and a hearse might seem like strange bedfellows—especially today when hearses are privately owned by independent funeral homes—but apparently it was considered pretty much business as usual almost 150 years ago.

Tradition meant a lot in 19th Century Oswego, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. The Fourth of July was an especially patriotic time of year in Oswego as this note in the July 4, 1871 Record illustrates: “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The Oswego cannon? What do you suppose happened to that? It certainly would be a neat thing to have around these days—especially during those planning boundary wars with Joliet, Plainfield, Aurora and the rest of the aggressors.

But back to business. Remember the Union Sewing Society’s drive to buy a new hearse? Well, in the Aug. 31, 1871 Record, the results were in. Wrote correspondent Lorenzo Rank: “A few more days and death will be no longer be any terror; the new hearse is ready for delivery. The ladies who brought about this achievement of a free hearse through raising of monies in fairs, socials, etc., now wish to finish their labors and enjoy the fruits of it. The greatest harmony and goodwill was maintained during the endeavor and their several years of joint labor and it is now hoped that no jealousy will spring up between them, and that the honor of its first usage may not create any envy among them.”

The various church congregations in Oswego also sponsored various entertainments, mostly as fundraisers. For instance, the May 30, 1872 Record reported: “A mush and milk festival is arranged for next Thursday evening at Chapman’s Hall for the benefit of the Baptist church.”

One wonders how mush and milk could be festive, suggesting tastes have apparently changed more than a bit over the last century and a half or so. About the only way a group could raise money through a mush and milk festival these days would be to promise never, ever to have one. People would probably pay for that.

Finally, in the days of horses and wagons, there was always some entertainment just waiting to happen. A good example was in the Record’s Oswego news of March 27, 1873: “One day recently as John Tatge was engaged in hauling out manure with the old gray, on throwing down the lines to step back for the fork, the horse got frightened and ran all over town spilling the manure and scattering parts of the wagon along the road.”

Now that’s something you don’t see in this day and age of dump trucks and backhoes. Ah but for the good old days—and an exciting runaway manure wagon now and then.

 

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