Tag Archives: environment

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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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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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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Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

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

Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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When folks thought Kendall County was a good place to be from…

In 1954, my parents decided to retire from farming and move into town. When I resumed third grade classes in January 1955 at the old Red Brick School, there were more kids in that single classroom than had been in my entire one-room country school. It was a bit of an adjustment.

1942 Oswego Limits Sign

By 1942, Oswego’s population had gone up a bit from the number counted in 1940. Or perhaps village officials just decided to round up the 978 counted in the 1940 Census.

In those days, the population on Oswego’s village limit signs was 1,220, its population as of the 1950 census. It was a small, but growing community. New houses were going up around town and just north of town on John H. Bereman’s old Boulder Hill Stock Farm, a sprawling, unincorporated subdivision was going up with new, affordable houses aimed at the thousands of discharged World War II and Korean Conflict veterans who were starting new families.

Community growth was taken for granted in those days and looked upon as a mostly favorable thing, although it was starting to dawn on local folks that what they were looking at wasn’t just a dozen or so new homes, but hundreds of them that would generate new students for local schools and lots of motorists on previously lightly traveled roads.

Starting then, we got used to fairly constant growth, but Oswego and Kendall County weren’t always sure bets for population growth. After the explosive growth during the settlement era from the early 1830s through 1850, in the decades after the Civil War, the county’s population saw a slow, steady decline before it finally started to recover in the 1920s. But it didn’t reach its pre-Civil War high until the mid-1950s as that post-World War II and Korean Conflict growth began to kick in.

In 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, Kendall County’s population stood at 13,074, nearly double the 7,730 recorded in 1850, the first census taken after the county was established in February 1841.

During the Civil War, Kendall contributed more than 1,200 soldiers, sailors, and marines (an astonishing 10 percent of the county’s total population) to the war effort, nearly 300 who were killed, or died of wounds or sickness.

Moving west

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad opened up millions of acres of western shortgrass prairies for settlement.

After the war, veterans trickled back to the county as their units were demobilized. Also arriving were a number of former slaves and black veterans of U.S. Army military units who arrived to start farming in Oswego and Kendall townships.

But more former residents had disappeared than new ones had arrived. When the Illinois state census was taken in 1865, the county’s population had taken a fairly serious hit, dropping by 445 residents. Part of that was accounted for by those soldiers who died as a result of the war. But when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, it was found the county had lost another 230 residents in the previous five-year period.

A brief growth spurt of 684 residents was recorded in the 1880 census, but from then on it was a steady decline until growth began inching up in the 1920s. Between 1860 and 1920, the county’s population declined by 3,000 residents, a surprising 23 percent drop.

So, what was going on in those post-Civil War years?

I suspect that population loss was due to a number of factors. First, the veterans who returned from Civil War service were, for the most part, young, ambitious men who had seen more of the country than any preceding generation. They’d traveled south deep into the Confederacy all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d marched west of the Mississippi, campaigning through Missouri and Arkansas, all the way to the Texas-Mexico border where the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry spent a while staring down French troops on the other side of the Rio Grande. Other Kendall County residents had fought through campaigns in the southeast on Sherman’s famed March to the Sea and with Grant all the way to Appomattox Courthouse.

Having seen so many new places, and for many, having so much responsibility for life and death situations thrust upon them at such a young age, I suspect it was hard for many of those former soldiers to simply return home and take up where they’d left off. They’d all changed one way or another in ways often profound.

A second factor was the availability of somewhere else to go where land was cheap and the chance existed to build whole new communities. In an effort to promote construction of a transcontinental railroad, the government had given millions of acres in land grants west of the Mississippi River to the railroad companies working on the project. The idea was that the railroads would sell the land, using the proceeds to help finance the gigantic construction project And that put those millions of acres into play for men and women who dreamed of establishing new farms and towns.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was another spur to western settlement that dovetailed nicely with the railroad land grants to lure new westerners. Any resident of the U.S. who had not taken up arms against the government could stake a 160-acre claim, improve it, and obtain ownership after five years of occupancy.

With the end of the war, the Homestead Act combined with the extension of the rails west of the Mississippi to provide easy access turbocharged western expansion.

The move west by county residents, as chronicled in the pages of the Kendall County Record, began early in the 1870s. Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted on Nov. 9, 1871: “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

That was only the first of a veritable flood of emigration, which was facilitated by the completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1870. The line, which followed the banks of the Fox River from Ottawa north to Geneva, directly connecting the county’s river towns with the wider world. As noted above, the Ashleys leased a rail car, loaded their goods aboard in Oswego, and weren’t required to offload them until they arrived on the shortgrass prairies of Kansas.

The flood of emigrants was helped along by frequent ads in the Record similar to this one from the Dec. 30, 1876 edition placed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad general agent John M. Childs: “Ho for Kansas! I shall take out a small party of excursionists to Larned and Kinsley, Kan. on Tuesday, Jan. 11th, 1876. If you desire to go to any part of Kansas at excursion rates, let me know at once. I shall also send out emigrant freight and excursion trains on Feb. 15th and March 14th, 1876. Cars of freight, $95 and $100 each, from all points on C.R.I. & P. R.R.”

On March 15, 1877, Rank reported a large group of Oswegoans were bound for Kansas: “Charles A. and Henry Davis, with the latter’s family, and William H. Coffin and family, Will Miller, Dan Puff, Valentine somebody and others whose names I did not learn, altogether 12 persons, started this morning for a new home in Kansas. They have taken with them two carloads of effects including 12 horses and mules. The Davises have land in Lyon and Greenwood counties of that state. I believe it is the latter to which they are now going.

Not everyone went west to the plains, of course. In July 1873, a number of families loaded up their goods to move south rather than west. Rank wrote on June 26, 1873 that “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

William A. Hawley was a veteran of the 13th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and campaigned with the regiment through much of Mississippi with Grant and Sherman during the war. Apparently, Hawley was so taken with that part of the country that he went to Madison County, Mississippi in April 1873 to look over the country, and then persuaded a number of Oswego families to join him.

And in 1880, Kendall County Circuit Clerk Lyman Bennett and his family moved to Missouri. In 1881, a large party of families moved to Plymouth County, Iowa, after which Rank plaintively remarked: “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

1870 Brockway farms.jpg

The Brockways sold their farms and moved to Iowa in 1884.

Out on the Oswego prairie, the Edmund Brockway family had been farming right on the border with Wheatland Township, Will County, since the 1850s. In 1884, he decided he could increase his acreage by moving west to Iowa. Accordingly, he bought a farm near Newell in Buena Vista County, in far northwestern Iowa. Returning, he got his wife and several children ready to move starting in February 1884.

The Brockways’ farm was located on Stewart Road just north of Simons Road, making Aurora their largest nearby town. Accordingly, that’s where they moved the farm tools and household goods they planned to take west.

“We were to get possession of the new farm March 1, so we loaded our moveables on two [rail] cars to reach it at that date,” Edmund’s son, also named Edmund, wrote in a 1946 memoire.

The Brockways procured two rail cars from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and loaded their goods aboard in Aurora. “Machinery and four horses in one car, household goods and four cows, one calf, one dog, some hens, and maybe a cat,” young Edmund recalled. They left Aurora on a Tuesday evening, and arrived at their destination at noon Friday. The Brockways made a success of their move, and Edmund’s descendants live and farm in Buena Vista County still.

Not everyone made a go of it, of course. The families who tried Mississippi gradually straggled back to Kendall County, Hawley himself lasting not quite a year.

Also having sober second thoughts were a number of those who tried farming on the arid plains of western Kansas and Nebraska. On Dec. 18, 1889, Rank wrote: “Frank Hoard and all of the family have returned from Dakota and moved on a farm over near the old [CB&Q railroad] station. He was well pleased with the country out there but has had bad luck; first nearly losing everything by being burned out, and next being included in the district where nothing was raised the past season because of drought.”

As the 20th Century dawned, removals from Kendall County continued, although the destinations changed from west to north, with residents moving to Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Canada. On Oct. 21, 1908, the Record reported that “Charles Turpin loaded his [railroad] car Monday for his new home in Halbrite, Saskatchewan.”

2016 Oswego Village Limits

There appears to be little danger of Oswego’s population declining any time soon. Counting 3,876 residents in 1990, the latest population estimate is well over 30,000.

Canadian officials and railroad companies were so good at selling Americans on the good deals they could have by moving north that it became a concern. The Record reported on May 11, 1910 that officials in Washington, D.C. were alarmed at the exodus: “Washington officials of the departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Labor have a sharp sense of the need of something, no one yet seems to know just what, to stop the flood of emigration from the western United States into Canada. The administration is to take the matter up seriously. In the last eight years, 480,000 of American citizens have gone to Canada.”

But like all other fads, that, too soon passed. As the 20th Century reached its mid point, Kendall County’s population was finally recovering, fueled by all those Baby Boomers produced by military veterans. And by the 1960s, we’d reached and then quickly surpassed the 1860 population high point.

Given Kendall County’s location nestled up against three of the six fast-growing Collar Counties, it’s unlikely we’ll experience population loss any time soon. But it did happen once, so there’s that.

 

 

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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