Tag Archives: environment

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.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

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.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

The Bridge on the River Fox at Oswego: A concrete reminder of pioneer days

After the last glaciers retreated from northern Illinois, releasing their melt waters’ titanic forces that created the state’s Fox River Valley, the area that would one day become the Village of Oswego was rewarded with a landscape that included the narrowest stretch along the entire stream’s course as well as a smooth limestone shelf that created a great place to ford the river.

The Oswego ford was located somewhere between today’s North Street and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Old township maps show the original road on the west side of the river where the Galena Road emerged from the ford. It was an excellent ford, with its smooth rock bottom making for easy passage by horses, freight wagons, and stagecoaches. Since traffic had to slow down, and even stop, before crossing the river, the area on the bluff above the ford became a good spot for an inn. It all helped the new village founded there in 1835 grow.

Although it was a really excellent fording place, as area population increased a bridge was clearly needed. Some temporary structures may have been built earlier, but in 1851, Oswegoans got serious about providing a permanent bridge. The county seat had been moved to the village in 1845, and county residents desiring to use the court system or conduct other county business probably demanded a bridge be provided. Community pride was also probably involved.

1851 Double Arch Chord bridge plan

Plan of a typical timber double arch chord bridge with braces of the kind built at Oswego in 1851

As indicated above, there’s some question about when the first bridge was built across the river at Oswego. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that that first bridge at Oswego was built in 1848. However, the July 13, 1851 issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon suggests the Fox wasn’t bridged at Oswego until that year. A short note in that edition of the paper reported: “We are happy to learn that our enterprising neighbors down the river are really engaged in constructing a bridge opposite their town. It is to be 300 feet long upon the approved plan of double arch chords and braces, with spans about 72 feet. J.W. Chapman has contracted to build it for $2,250 to be completed this fall.”

1846 Chapman land patent.jpg

John W. Chapman’s 1846 patent for land he purchased in Oswego Township. The original parchment patent is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Chapman was an established local builder who had also been the general contractor for the new Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego in 1848. He arrived in Oswego in 1835, the same year the new village was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, stayed a few months, and then moved on to Dickson. Chapman returned to Oswego in 1842 where he remained until his death in 1883.

The new bridge proved popular. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, the anonymous correspondent who signed himself “Plow Boy” boasted that in Oswego “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Nevertheless, Oswego’s “substantial” bridge faced some tough times, and was even washed out by spring floods. The relatively new Oswego bridge, along with every other bridge across the river from Batavia south to Ottawa was washed away during the destructive Freshet of 1857. But the bridge was rebuilt as needed until 1867, when the wooden 1851 structure had become badly deteriorated.

In late July, the Oswego Township Board of Trustees condemned the bridge. At the trustees’ Aug. 7, 1867 meeting, they voted to replace the old timber bridge with a modern iron bridge. An amendment proposed by Chapman, then serving on the township board, to allow township voters to decide whether to build a timber or an iron bridge was defeated in favor of specifying an iron bridge.

At the trustees’ Sept. 3 meeting, they decided to spread the estimated $13,000 cost of the new bridge over three years.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

The elegant bowstring arch truss King’s Patent iron bridge built across the Fox River in 1867 sat on native limestone piers built by Oswego contractor John W. Chapman. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on the new bridge began in October 1867 and continued through the fall. As Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 14: “The piers of the new bridge are now being put up, by J.W. Chapman, Esq., who is sub-contractor for this part of the work, and we will soon have a splendid Iron Bridge (King’s Patent) which will excel any on the Fox River.”

The new structure, built by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was a tied arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge. The design was patented by the company’s owner, Zenas King in 1861 and improved through a second patent issued in 1866. Bowstring arch truss bridges were some of the earliest iron bridge designs that became popular as transportation needs moved away from the more maintenance-intensive and less robust timber bridges. Because they required less maintenance, iron bridges proved less expensive during their service lives. Although the bridge superstructure was entirely of iron, the bridge deck was of six-inch oak planks.

Even the new iron bridge had its limits, however, and during yet another destructive spring flood in 1868 it was damaged—but notably not destroyed—by the rampaging river.

Chapman’s new piers were built with sharpened iron-clad “icebreakers” on their upstream sides. According to a note in the March 15, 1893 Record, the icebreakers were torn off the piers when the ice went out that spring.

Tied arch bridges had their limits, especially weight limits. In addition, the 1867 structure had been weakened by a variety of other factors, including using dynamite to break up ice jams at the bridge in March 1893, the concussions reportedly weakening the piers’ mortar joints.

In 1897, the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad (later the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railroad) proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south along the west side of the Fox River to Oswego, right next to the West River Road (today’s Ill. Route 31) where the line would turn east, cross the river on the existing bowstring arch bridge, and then turn south to downtown Yorkville. The AY&M proposed to strengthen, at its own expense, the old bridge with steel beams and promised they’d widen it so that a team and wagon could pass by a trolley car on the bridge. However, despite the best efforts of John D. Russell, Oswego Township’s county board representative, when the Kendall County Board approved the franchise agreement with the trolley company, it only stipulated the firm would be liable for $3,500 if the bridge needed to be replaced due to the demands placed on it due to trolley traffic.

At first, the trolley company proposed crossing the river about a mile above Oswego on their own bridge, but they apparently quickly realized how expensive that would be. In late May 1900, representatives of the company, Oswego Township, and the township’s bridge consultant decided that if the trolley was to cross at Oswego, a new bridge would be needed to carry the additional weight of the rails and the trolley cars.

The decision to stick taxpayers with most of the bill for a new bridge caused some local grumbling. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

By late June 1900, the trolley tracks had reached the west end of the Oswego bridge and limited passenger service from that point north was ready to begin.

1912 abt look east

The Joliet Bridge and Iron Company’s iron box truss replaced Oswego bowstring arch bridge in 1900. The bridge deck was shared between interurban trolley cars and road traffic. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new bridge was an iron box truss bridge manufactured by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Company. While the bridge superstructure and deck would be new, plans called for reusing the original 1867 piers. Work on the new bridge began in mid July, when Chapman’s 1867 piers were repaired in preparation for the new bridge superstructure. The first iron for the new structure was delivered in early August.

The new bridge was up and in place by early November 1900, allowing trolley cars to cross the river and stop in downtown Oswego. The trolley tracks occupied the north side of the bridge, while a one-lane road surface occupied the downstream side.

That bridge lasted almost 40 years before being replaced with a continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and concrete decorative railings.

On Oct. 2, 1935, the Kendall County Record reported a new bridge would be built at Oswego to replace the old 1900 structure, and would be designed to carry the heavier truck and auto traffic state officials predicted would be generated when Oswego and Naperville were finally connected by a paved road.

1937 Oswego bridge const

Work on the new continuous beam steel and concrete bridge at Oswego began in the summer of 1937. Chapman’s 1867 piers were retained but strengthened and widened to carry the new bridge deck. The newer, lighter colored limestone pier additions are visible in the above photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

“A new bridge and paving, which will connect Routes 25 and 65 [modern U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Naperville] with Route 34 at Oswego, has been approved by the state, according to C.H. Apple, district state highway engineer,” the Record reported. “The bridge and connecting highways will be constructed at an approximate cost of $200,000. [Oswego Township] Supervisor Scott Cutter tells us that surveying of the new project will begin today, Wednesday.

“The bridge will be built on the site of the old iron bridge, which has been condemned for the past three years, and will be built of steel and concrete, 300 feet long and with a 40-foot roadway. The new paving will extend from the east end of the bridge east in Washington to Madison street, north in Madison to the intersection with 65 and 25, the East River Road, and then east in the old Chicago road to the Jim Pierce farm, where it will connect with the already paved road on the outskirts of Oswego.”

As in years past, the old 1867 piers were retained, although they were lengthened and significantly strengthened, with new concrete icebreakers installed at the base of each pier.

The Record reported on July 14, 1937 that “The steel bridge, which has carried traffic across the Fox river at Oswego for so many years, is being torn down and a new and more modern structure will replace it. The west span has been removed and we expect that the other two will follow as soon as possible. How many of you gals and guys remember when the old AE&C cars ran between Aurora and Yorkville, climbed a trestle at Oswego and went across the Fox on the old bridge and then bounded along on their way? It was always our secret fear that some day the trestle would be too weak to hold the car and would break, and we always felt better when we were past that mental hazard. After automobiles and trucks became more popular and the street cars were discontinued the bridge was subjected to heavy traffic, and was too narrow to be comfortable or very safe. The new one will be built to take care of the heavy loads which it must carry. No temporary bridge is being built at Oswego according to [Township] Supervisor Cutter, who says that the expense of such a structure would be prohibitive.”

1938 Oswego Bridge

Oswego’s new bridge opened in December 1937. This photo was taken the next summer after the steel bridge beams had been painted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Instead of a temporary bridge, motorists who needed to cross the river at Oswego made the last known regular use of the old stagecoach and wagon ford that played such a major role in the village’s early history.

Then on Dec. 1, 1937, the Record reported: “The new Oswego bridge will be opened to traffic this week. Foot passengers were using it last week.”

Wrote the Record’s editor on Jan. 12, 1938: “We traveled over the new Oswego bridge several weeks ago and up through the town on the new highway. The bridge is a ‘dandy’ one and the highway certainly smoothed out the bumps that were on the stretch by the railroad. Oswego business men are glad to have traffic again able to get into town and those who seek the short cut from 34 to Naperville are happy too. It is a big improvement.”

2008 Oswego bridge & bridge park

Oswego’s new four-lane bridge (right) now shares the river crossing with Hudson Crossing Bridge Park (left). (Photo by John Etheredge. Little White School Museum collection)

The 1937 bridge served motorists well during the next 53 years, although normal wear and tear took their toll. Then in 1993, the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to replace the bridge as part of their plan to widen Route 34 through Oswego to four lanes. Original plans called for a completely new four-lane prestressed concrete I-beam bridge to be built immediately downstream from the 1937 bridge. According to the original plans, the old bridge would be open to traffic during construction, after which the old bridge would be demolished.

2003 Hudson Crossing Bridge Park

Hudson Crossing Bridge Park offers a place to sit and enjoy the Fox River, to walk, and to ride bicycles while preserving an important part of Oswego’s history.

But some Oswego residents had another idea. Naturalist, author, and former public official Dick Young, and his nephew, Glenn Young, then an IDOT bridge inspector, wondered why the old bridge couldn’t be left in place after the new one opened, with the old one to be turned into a bridge-park. They approached the Oswegoland Park District’s executive director, Bert Gray, with the plan. As Glenn Young told Gray as he successfully persuaded him the plan was eminently doable, the old bridge would “stand forever if we get the trucks off it” and that “it will cost the state a lot more to demolish it than to fix it up for pedestrians.”

The bridge-park concept was growing in popularity as communities tried to find innovative ways to increase recreational opportunities while, at the same time, preserving their architectural and engineering heritage. In Oswego, a bridge-park would provide a handy connection for pedestrians and bicyclists to the west bank of the river, where, even then, plans were percolating to build a new village hall. It would also offer a link to proposed cycling and walking trails that were being planned to link new subdivisions west of the river. And, as Young pointed out, it would not only save IDOT the expense of tearing it down and the cleanup of the environmentally sensitive site, but, if properly renovated, would stand virtually forever as long as there was no motor vehicle traffic on it.

Gray then took the proposal back to IDOT, which, with some prodding by local politicians, eventually agreed, although with the caveat that the bridge-park could not be owned by the park district. According to state law, the bridge could only be transferred to an agency that had roadway and highway responsibilities. So Gray then negotiated with the Village of Oswego and with the approval of village president Jim Detzler—because the village does have roadway responsibilities—the trade with the state was made.

Meanwhile, the engineering challenges of having two bridges and their piers so close together were all worked out and the new bridge was completed, opening in November 1993,

Then, instead of being demolished, the old bridge and its 121 year-old native limestone piers were saved as well. After it was reconditioned and renovated by IDOT as part of the construction project, the 1937 bridge was turned over to the village, which then made the Oswegoland Park District responsible for operating the park. It was renamed the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, and officially opened in September 1994, with a dedication ceremony presided over by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, named after what the village was called by its founders before it was changed to Oswego in 1837, is now a centerpiece of the adjoining Hudson Crossing Park. And for those who know a bit about its rich history, it’s also a direct connection to the community’s pioneer past, a place where visitors can still enjoy seeing the piers that were originally built by a man who was present at Oswego’s founding in 1835.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

Clarissa Stewart Hobson: A savvy, resolute pioneer wife and mother

March is Women’s History Month, and every year about this time I can’t help but think about the contributions women made to the settlement of Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

From Christiana Holmes Tillson, who drove in a carriage from Massachusetts to Illinois with her husband in the 1820s to Juliette Kinzie who traveled on horseback with her husband from Prairie du Chein to Chicago in 1830 to the women who came to the Fox River Valley that was then the western frontier later that same decade, it’s hard to deny these were a special, hardy group females.

Hobson, Clarissa

Clarissa Stewart Hobson about 1870

Of that group the one that always seems to stick in my mind is Clarissa Stewart Hobson, who followed her husband west and found herself in circumstances that were not only isolated and extremely lonely, but which could also be profoundly dangerous.

Clarissa Hobson’s husband, Bailey, had located the family in southern Ohio near the banks of the Ohio River. Hobson soon despaired of ever clearing the heavy forest on the land he’d claimed, and so decided to prospect farther west into Illinois, where he heard there was good prairie land that didn’t need to be cleared of trees.

In May 1830, Hobson left his family and his claim in Ohio for a prospecting trip west. As Richmond and Valette put it in their 1857 history of DuPage County, “Without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife, for defense, he mounted his horse, and destitute of chart or compass, groped his way, as best he could, through the dense forests and deep ravines, and forded the bridgeless waters that lay in his course.”

He roamed as far as the Fox River of Illinois, choosing a spot in what was then called Hollenback’s Grove, now the location of Newark in southwestern Kendall County.

Hobson didn’t get back from his prospecting trip until the first of July, when he began making arrangements to sell his Ohio claim, load up the family’s possessions in a wagon, and head west. The Hobsons, their five children, and Hobson’s friend and brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, weren’t ready to leave for their new home until Sept. 1, 1830.

Hobson seems to have been a determined person, but one without much common sense. Traveling so late in the season necessarily meant no crop could be planted upon arrival in time for it to be harvested and that virtually every bit of food the family would need would have to be purchased. Further, it also meant that only the rudest sort of cabin could be erected in the short period of time until winter struck the Illinois prairies. But he didn’t let those concerns bother him.

The family spent 21 days on the road before arriving at Hollenback’s Grove, where Hobson immediately set out to build a cabin to house the family and to sow a few acres of winter wheat on the adjacent prairie. The Hobsons finally moved into their cabin in October, but the lack of supplies was already becoming a problem. So Hobson mounted his horse and, leaving the family to fend for itself, rode east looking for some food to buy. He finally found someone with some preserved pork to sell out on the Oxbow Prairie near modern Magnolia, Illinois, about 60 miles southwest of Hollenback’s Grove.

Hobson, Bailey

Bailey Hobson, about 1845

Hobson returned home, but instead of immediately hitching up his yoke of oxen and going to get the pork to stave off the family’s looming lack of food, he decided to go prospecting for better land. Leaving his family at home again with Stewart, he rode across the prairie to the DuPage River, where on the east side of the stream he found the land he thought would be a better claim.

By that time, the weather was getting pretty cold. In fact, the winter of 1830-31 would become fabled in frontier tales as “The Winter of the Early Snow.”

After being gone five days, Hobson got back home, and again deciding against going and getting the pork he’d already purchased, he and Stewart instead set off for the new claim.

By then it was December and brutal winter weather was starting to set in. Reaching the DuPage, the oxen refused to cross the stream, which was covered with ice ice, so Hobson had to break it up by walking in front of the wagon leading the team. Almost as soon as they arrived, the first major snow of that long winter hit, driving the two men from their tent camp to find shelter with a nearby settler where they waited out the storm. Then they headed back across the prairie to rejoin the Hobson family.

At this late date we can only speculate what Clarissa Hobson was thinking as her footloose husband continually wandered around the countryside instead of going and getting food for his family, which was in increasingly dire straits as Hobson and Stewart finally straggled home across the snowy prairie tired, wet, cold, and hungry.

The initial snowstorm changed to rain, then again to snow, and more rain, and then the temperature plunged, freezing the prairie solid. When the storm passed, Hobson finally decided it was time to go to the Oxbow Prairie to get the pork, leaving Stewart to look after the family. He planned to be back in ten days, but in the end, it took more than 20 days for him to return, and that without the promised pork, which had to be left behind due to continual snowstorms.

At that point, the family’s prospects were REALLY bleak. They had been subsisting solely on corn for two months, and were rapidly running out of that. The only thing Hobson could think to do was take Stewart and go back for the load of pork, reasoning that maybe the two of them could get the food through the increasingly deep snow somehow or another.

According to the account of that harrowing winter Clarissa’s family gave to Richmond and Vallette for their 1857 history of DuPage County, she reluctantly agreed, “Brushing the tears from her face, and summoning all the courage and resolution she could command, entreated him to go and leave her to do the best she could.”

Hobson and Stewart took one yoke of oxen to break a trail through the deepening snow, leaving Clarissa and the children to look after 13 head of cattle and three horses and themselves.

I’ll let Richmond and Vallette tell Clarissa’s story from that point on:

On the second day after the departure of Messrs. Hobson and Stewart, it commenced snowing and continued without interruption for two days and nights, covering the earth upon a level, three feet deep. On the third day, just at sunrise, the wind began to blow with fury from the west, and continued like a hurricane, without cessation, for three days, sweeping the snow from the ground and piling it in drifts twenty, thirty, and even forty feet high, while the atmosphere was so thick with the driving snow, as almost to turn daylight into darkness.

On the first morning of the wind storm, Mrs. Hobson, taking a pail, went to a spring a few yards from the house for some water, but before reaching the house she was compelled to throw the water upon the ground and make all possible haste back. The children opened the door for her, which, being in the west side of the house, it required all their strength to close again. It was not opened again until after the storm had subsided. The snow, which was constantly driving into the house, supplied them with water; but who shall describe the feelings of that mother, as alone with her little ones, the days dragged wearily along, while her mind was filled with the most fearful apprehensions. Husband or brother she should in all probability see no more. Her children might perish in her sight, while a like fate awaited herself. It was, indeed, a severe trial of endurance, and needed all the fortitude of her soul to sustain such agonizing reflections while the raging storm swept around her solitary dwelling.

After the wind had ceased, Mrs. Hobson went out to look after the cattle and horses, but could discover nothing of them, and concluded they had been covered in the snow-drifts and perished. The day passed without any of them making their appearance. The next morning they all came around from the east side of the grove, whither they had fled and remained during the storm.

The fuel which had been prepared and put in the house was now exhausted, while that which had been left outside was embedded in a deep snow drift. The only alternative was to dig this wood out of the snow with a pick-ax, and Mrs. Hobson accordingly set about it, working and resting alternately, as her strength would permit. Weak and faint from hunger, and with hands frozen and blistered, she worked on day after day, unable to get out more wood than would barely serve from one day to another. A cow, that was accustomed to being fed at the door came into the house one day and seemed to reel, as if about to fall. Mrs. Hobson pushed her outside of the door, when she immediately fell dead. Fearing that the wolves, which were very plenty and hungry, would come to the door to feed upon the carcass, she covered it deep in the snow.

On the fourteenth day after his departure, Hobson returned with some provisions, leaving Stewart at Holderman’s grove with a part of the oxen that were unable to finish the trip. On his arrival, he found the wood which they had prepared, all consumed, and Mrs. Hobson tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for fuel.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Hobson, about 1880

The Hobsons were an extremely lucky family in that they survived “The Winter of the Deep Snow” with their lives, because so many other prairie settlers did not.

When Spring finally arrived, Hobson left Kendall County for good, and moved his family to their new claim on the DuPage where he built the gristmill that became the basis for his later fortune. There, Clarissa bore seven more children.

Hobson died in 1850, but Clarissa lived on at the claim the family moved to in 1831 for three more decades until her death in 1884 (outliving six of her children), her life a testament to the hardihood, resilience, and bravery of the women who pioneered the Illinois prairies alongside their husbands.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Women's History

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

It is somehow fitting that November is Native American Heritage Month, given that the greatest gift Native People gave to agricultural history was the corn their agronomists developed over thousands of years.

Of course, it’s also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday with its origin back in the 1620s when a ragtag group of religious separatists held such a celebration in New England to thank God for their survival. They’d have been more honest and accurate if they’d thanked the Native People who showed them how to plant corn, and whose stores of the grain probably pulled them through that first year of near starvation.

modern corn harvest

The nation’s corn harvest is well underway–in fact lots of farmers have already wrapped it up for this year. And the yield is already on its way to being shipped around the world.

The value corn holds for the nation is clear during this season of the year, especially, as farmers all over the Midwest hustle to get their fields harvested while the weather holds. Sometimes in 24 hour a day shifts, self-propelled combines work the fields picking, husking, and shelling corn kernels from the ears. When the on-board bins are full, they’re off-loaded into trucks or wagons waiting on the headlands. From the field, the golden harvest may be stored in bins on the farm, hauled to a grain elevator, or taken directly to the Illinois Waterway, the modern incarnation of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, where its loaded on barges for shipment south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there all over the world.

Corn is pretty common stuff these days. We pop it on cool evenings or to enjoy a movie at home, we boil sweet ears and enjoy them with butter during the summer, and we consume it in hundreds of products as starch or a sweetener. We even use alcohol made from it as fuel in our cars and trucks.

But as I noted above, for something so common, it’s mysterious stuff. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, and was called maize by Native Americans. It had been grown and genetically modified for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North and South America. By then, it had become the major source of vegetable food for the peoples of the Americas.

Ancient corn

Ancient corn’s family group sheet looks pretty definitive. But, really, those earliest ancestors over there on the left side are pretty much guesswork.

The Europeans found that corn was a wonderful plant. It produces far more grain per seed kernel than almost any other, and the grain it produces is very nutritious. It’s likely that a store of corn the Pilgrims dug up after they landed in 1620 was mainly responsible for their survival during their first brutal winter in New England. That they stole the corn from its rightful owners—the local Indians who grew and harvested it—was a harbinger of the way the two peoples would interact for the next 300 years.

There are five great subdivisions of corn: Pop corn, sweet corn, flour, flint, and dent. Popcorn, we all know. It has the interesting characteristic of turning itself inside out when heat is applied thanks to the extremely tough coating of its kernels. Flint corn has relatively small, hard, smooth kernels, while dent is the most familiar having relatively large kernels with dented (thus the name) crowns. Sweet corn is a type of dent with a genetic modification that prevents some of the sugar produced in the kernel from being converted into starch. Flour corn, too, is a form of dent with a very soft starchy kernel easily ground into flour. There are also a couple of other minor varieties, waxy and pod corn, grown in some parts of the world today. Pod corn, in fact, is a sort of throwback to what scientists believe is closer to the original primitive perennial corn.

cahokia-c

Wherever corn came from, it fueled formation of sophisticated civilizations like the Mississippian cultural tradition in Southern Illinois, whose huge city at Cahokia may have housed more than 40,000 people.

In fact, scientists are still arguing about exactly what corn is descended from. Duke University researcher Mary Eubanks believes enterprising and observant Native American farmers developed corn some thousands of years ago by interbreeding two varieties of wild grasses. Eubanks believes that Eastern gamagrass, and Zea diploperennis, a perennial variety of teosinte (a tall annual grass found in Mexico) were crossbred to create the original maize that started the Native Americans’ agricultural revolution. The apparent problem with all the supposed ancestors of corn is that none of them have cobs on which the kernels form. Figuring out how to get from cobless bunches of kernels to kernels forming on a cob is the big problem nobody’s been able to solve. At least so far.

Whatever its origins, corn seems to have emerged in the Mexican highlands or perhaps in Guatemala, and later spread all over North and South America.

Corn, it turns out, is uniquely suited for genetic manipulation. Kernels were originally planted two or three to a hill rather than broadcast like wheat, oats, and other small grains in Old Europe. And ears of corn were harvested one at a time. That meant an observant farmer knew exactly which seeds produce the best crops.

Corn is also somewhat unique in that a genetic cross shows up in the first generation. That’s why gardeners are strongly advised not to plant a stand of decorative Indian corn next to the sweet corn they plan to eat.

Corn arrived in the Fox Valley and the rest of Illinois about 600 A.D. and quickly became the basis on which several Native American cultural traditions were based. Even at that early date, the state’s broad river valleys with their rich alluvial soils produced bumper crops.

Corn was growing everywhere plants could grow when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 15th Century.

European settlers worked to further improve the native corn varieties by intensive cross breeding. It was eventually found that a cross between New England flints and southerly dents created a hybrid that out-yielded either of the two ancestor varieties. That original cross was the basis for the dozens of different hybrid varieties that grow in fields all over the Fox Valley today.

Especially during this month, when you drive around the countryside and see those fields of corn being harvested, with the grain sold to people in every corner of the globe, you might give a tip of the hat to whichever brilliant ancient Native American farmer came up with that original cross of whatever ancient strains of grass that led to corn’s creation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History