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It’s open water year round these days on the Fox River

Drive south on Ill. Route 25 along the Fox River from the Kane County line during the coldest winter months and you won’t help but notice that the farther you travel into Kendall County the more the amount of ice on the river increases.

Granted, the river from the Montgomery dam south to Oswego is generally swift moving and dotted with small rapids, but swift-flowing water isn’t the reason the Fox doesn’t freeze over, because it used to just a few decades ago.

So what’s the reason for the open water until you nearly reach Yorkville?

The main answer seems to be that the largest tributaries of the Fox River these days are not those creeks, springs, and wetlands created by the last Ice Age. Instead, we are the river’s largest tributaries—the men, women, and children who live in the Fox Valley.

When the 18th Century ended, it was less than three decades until the first permanent white settlers arrived in the Fox Valley. As 1799 turned into 1800, the river’s largest tributaries were the creeks that drained thousands of acres of wetlands that dotted the river valley from Wisconsin to the mouth of the Fox on the Illinois River. In Kendall County, the largest of these subsidiary streams were, from north to south, Waubonsie Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Big Rock Creek.

Most of these creeks were the main outlets for large wetlands. Waubonsie Creek, for instance, drained the Wabausia Swamp on the Kane-Kendall County border, a wetland that covered nearly a square mile. Morgan Creek, too, drained extensive wetlands that were the remains of a former glacial lake.

Both north and south, other smaller and larger streams and springs added their flows to the river.

During the winter months, the water that seeped and flowed into the river from its bordering wetlands and tributary creeks was cold, having been pre-cooled as it slowly made its way to the river.

1915 abt Drainage

One of the many rural drainage projects was this 24″ tile draining wetlands along Wolf’s Crossing Road into Waubonsie Creek about 1911. This particular project was dug by hand. (Little White School Museum collection)

As soon as the settlers arrived, they began to wage war on the Fox Valley’s expansive wetlands. Over a 50-year period, they aggressively drained marshland and channelized streams, the former to create more farmland and the latter to drain stormwater into the river as quickly as possible to stop nearby farmland from flooding. Their efforts were extremely effective, even given that all the earliest drainage work was completed by animal power and hand labor. By the start of the 20th Century, drainage efforts continued, now assisted by steam-powered dredges.

The result was the addition of additional tillable land, and the elimination of wetlands that were homes to hordes of disease-carrying insects. Drying up the county’s numerous marshes and sloughs led to a precipitous decline in the occurrence of malaria—called “the ague” by the settlers.

But a major unintended consequence of all those drainage efforts was that they not only sharply decreased the summer and winter flows of the river, but they also led to more frequent flooding. That’s because the stormwater “banks” created by the county’s wetlands and meandering streams were eliminated. Instead of runoff trapped in sloughs and marshes slowly soaking in to recharge ground water supplies and be slowly discharged over a period of weeks following rainstorms or snow melt, the runoff was rapidly channeled into the Fox River where it flowed downstream to the Illinois River. When dry months arrived, there was no water “bank” to add to the river’s flows, and it nearly dried up during some dry periods.

In addition, the velocity of the water from the Fox’s tributaries greatly increased due to the elimination of meanders in the streams—channelization—and the disappearance of the wetlands that once slowed the speed of stormwater runoff. That resulted in farmland drying out much more quickly after precipitation fell, but it also resulted in more erosion, with the area’s incredibly rich topsoil washing into the fast-flowing channelized streams. The fast-flowing muddy water caused major flooding far more frequently.

Fox Metro plant

The Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s sprawling wastewater treatment plant between Montgomery and Oswego is today a major Fox River tributary.

And then, as the 19th Century ended, a new sort of tributary started adding to the river’s flows, this one far from the crystal clear water that was once generated by wetlands and meandering creeks. In the early decades of the 20th Century, it finally became apparent, that simply dumping raw sewage, from human waste to industrial products, didn’t get rid of the problem; it just moved it downstream. The human, animal, and industrial waste pumped directly into the river began to be treated to greater or lesser degrees as recognition of the dangers of pollution became clearer, and as wastewater treatment technology advanced.

With the Fox Valley’s population growth, the increasing volume of body temperature sewage began raising the river’s temperature, but at first there wasn’t enough inflow volume to noticeably affect it. As late as the late 1960s, the river regularly froze over all the way from Aurora south to Yorkville. When I was in high school in the early 1960s, we regularly ice skated on the river from Oswego north to Boulder Hill, a distance of three or so miles.

Ice skating on Fox

In about 1920, when this photo was snapped on the frozen Fox River immediately upstream from the Oswego bridge, the river regularly froze over and offered a fine site for community ice skating. (Little White School Museum collection)

But shortly after that, as my friend, Dr. Paul Baumann, pointed out in his 1976 monograph, A Bicentennial History of the Fox River, by the time we celebrated the United States’ 200th birthday, about one-third of the water in the Fox River had already been used at least once by humans or businesses by the time it reached Kendall County.

And then came the Fox Valley’s explosive growth from the 1970s into the first decade of the 21st Century. With that growth, it’s likely the river’s single largest tributary has become the sanitary sewage treatment plants linking the river’s banks. And the relative warmth of that water (it’s slightly warmer, but no less pure than water already in the river thanks to modern wastewater treatment technology) means that nowadays the river seldom freezes between the Fox Valley Water Reclamation District’s huge wastewater treatment plant, located across the river from Boulder Hill, and the pool created behind the Yorkville dam.

Ice Houses

This view of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses north of Oswego, taken about 1890, gives an idea of the size of the company’s ice harvesting operation. (Little White School Museum collection)

As shallow as it is now and historically has been, the Fox River was never a main transportation route, but its dams did provide power for mills, its waters were rich in clams harvested for freshwater pearls and shells for buttons, and in winter its ice was harvested for use in both the home and industry. In fact, huge ice harvesting operations were conducted at each of the dams across the river, including at Yorkville and Oswego. How huge? In 1880, the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice company shipped 581 railcars of ice from Oswego. Of that number, they shipped 124 railcars full of ice from Oswego in August alone. By 1884, the ice company was shipping nearly 1,100 railcars of ice annually.

It’s fortunate cooling technology advanced so far that we don’t require that ice today, because through the impact on the environment of our mere presence here in the Fox Valley, we’ve managed to raise the river’s average temperature so much that it seldom freezes along much of its length in northern Kendall and southern Kane counties.

 

 

 

 

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When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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When sledding was good in the Fox Valley

Time was, we could joke about northern Illinois climate consisting of winter and six weeks of bad sledding. But in recent years, the favorite lament of Midwesterners—until 2017 wrapped up, at least—has been the general lack of an old-fashioned winter.

Historically, that’s been a common complaint. For instance, on Dec. 27, 1916, Kendall County Record Editor H.R. Marshall was pleased to report that, at last, Kendall County was enjoying a fine old-fashioned winter, although modern life was intruding into the enjoyment a bit:

“No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled} go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

A century plus a year later, things are different still. We have occasional cold snaps, as my dad used to call them, but then the weather usually warms, the snow and ice melts. And in recent years it never really returned during late winter.

1922 Trolley & ice skaters @Oswego

Ice skating on the Fox River at the Oswego Bridge about 1922 as the interurban trolley car crosses southbound on its way to Yorkville. In those days, the river froze solid most winters. (Little White School Museum collection)

This winter’s cold snap, however, is proving persistent. The Fox River hardly ever freezes solid between Aurora and Yorkville any more—this year, even as cold as it’s been, is no exception—because it is so warm, and not necessarily due to global warming, either. The major tributaries of today’s Fox River are the municipal sanitary plants that line its banks, pumping out their streams of warm treated wastewater. You can see the results of that by driving along Ill. Route 25 opposite the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s plant in Oswego Township on a cold winter day. Just note the vapor rising from the treated water as it enters the river.

This year, however, not only have we had unusual cold, but we’ve also had a bit of snow as well. The cold arrived earlier in December, followed by a good covering of snow. And then as the New Year arrived, we began experiencing one of those old-fashioned cold snaps that almost made it seem like old times.

Which sort of leads us back to the point about sledding. If sledding was bad during some parts of the year, when was it good?

In those days of yore when I was young and the weather was colder more often, sledding possibilities were many and varied. When we lived out on the farm, we’d trudge what seemed to be miles to an abandoned gravel pit adjacent to our farm and ride our sleds down the nearly vertical slopes.

Besides that, my parents enjoyed having bobsled parties. My dad put his hayrack on a bobsled running gear every winter, hooked up the tractor, and everyone scrambled on board, sitting on bales of hay and straw. Away we went down country roads and farm lanes with everyone having a whale of a good time. The kids hooked their sleds onto the back of the bobsled with ropes and hung on for dear life as the party enjoyed themselves, after which hot chocolate and coffee and my mother’s great desserts capped the evening off.

The Hill horizontal S

The Second Street hill, looking west. The road makes a right-angle curve to the left at the bottom of the hill where Second joins North Adams Street. These days, the road is paved with asphalt.

When we moved to Oswego, bobsled parties were things of the past, but sledding opportunities grew. There was the road off Ill. Route 25 down to our street, for instance. Second Street is still a fairly steep climb today, although it’s paved with asphalt these days and village snowplow crews keep it cleared and well salted.

In the days of my childhood, however, Second Street was gravel, we were in the township, and we were lucky to see a plow for a while after the snow stopped. As a result, the hill’s gravel surface got snow-packed and slippery. All the locals knew you could drive down the hill with reasonable safety, but that most cars and trucks couldn’t make it up the slippery surface, especially since motorists almost always needed to stop at the Route 25 intersection. So traffic on the hill was light when there was snow on the ground.

And us kids quickly realized it made for a great sledding opportunity. You could start at the top and speed down, and if skillful enough, make the sharp turn at the bottom to head south on North Adams Street. A quarter mile distance was not difficult to achieve.

Sledding course

The trick to ensure a long sled ride was making the curve at the bottom of the Second Street hill.

Occasionally, we’d help Mother Nature out a bit by sprinkling water on the street, especially near the top and near the old CB&Q tracks to give us a bit more speed. It wasn’t unheard of for us to build up a bit of a snow bank on the curve where Second met North Adams Street, to allow us to make the curve a bit easier. Very careful and skillful sledders could make the curve at the bottom and head south on North Adams, sometimes all the way to the driveway at my folks’ house.

Motorists, however, did not appreciate our work, and cinders were soon sprinkled to offer a bit of traction for motorists.

We weren’t the only ones who sledded on the streets, either. In an editorial during a snowy winter in December 1952, Oswego Ledger Editor Ford Lippold wrote:

“Several motorists have reported that they had close calls during the past few days with children coasting on the streets. It is hard for motorists to stop quickly even when moving at a snail’s pace on the icy streets of the village.”

One winter, we got a good snowfall, and then it warmed up enough so that a very wet snow covered it, after which it turned very cold once again. That left an icy crust that measured nearly an inch thick on top of the snow, and provided some of the best sledding ever. That winter, we marked out a course that ran from my best friend Glenn’s backyard diagonally all the way to Bill Crimmins’ house. It led to some remarkably speedy trips across the ice, although control was a bit problematical. The most dangerous stretch of the route passed under a grape arbor’s wires. All but one of us were careful to duck our heads as we sped down the course, but he lifted his head at just the wrong time to see if anyone was gaining on him. The resulting gash in his face, and its spectacular amount of blood, spelled the end of our sledding on that course for the rest of the winter.

1940 abt Hall, Levi House Main Street cropped

Nellie Wormley Herren stands outside her ornate home on South Main Street during the winter of 1940. Generations of local kids had great fun coasting on the hill behind her house, where the ground sloped steeply down towards the railroad tracks and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

There were other good sledding spots around town then, near Smith’s Pond, and in Mrs. Herren’s backyard off Main Street to name two off the top of my head.

Kids in Kendall County’s other towns enjoyed the same opportunities during those years of less traffic and fewer parental worries about whether their children were safe from the many challenges of modern life. I imagine almost anyone growing up in Plano or Yorkville or Newark during that era can name their favorite sledding spots, too. For instance, on Jan. 20, 1915, Marshall wrote in the Record about the good sledding on the Bridge Street hill—something that would be suicidal today with Bridge Street’s busy four lanes of traffic:

“While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

So, yes, we really did have good sledding back in the day. Enough to establish a contrast so we knew when it was bad, anyway.

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A modest proposal: Honor the REAL Southern heroes of the Civil War

Almost in spite of myself, I’ve been reading a couple book lately that have given me some food for thought, especially given the recent controversy over monuments to Confederate officials and ideals.

In general, I am not a big Civil War fan. I find it one of the most wasteful conflicts this country has ever engaged in—and we’ve been part of some real doozies. I’ve just never been able to get my head around a large chunk of the United States, founded on the principal that all men are created equal, violently attacking the rest of the country in order to force the expansion of slavery on them.

Nevertheless, last fall, I read Ron Chernow’s Grant (Penguin Press, New York, 2017), his fine biography of U.S. Army general and former President Ulysses S. Grant. Then this past month in Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2008), I found that author Gary W. Gallagher (besides giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling by using the Oxford comma in the title) makes several good points about how everyone from Hollywood producers to publishing houses to artists have distorted the facts of the Civil War, from its causes to its basic historical facts to its effects on the country.

Some of the good points in both those books led me to wonder if there isn’t another way to solve the Confederate monument problem. My idea is pretty simple: why not erect monuments to the real Southern heroes of the war? Not the traitors that resigned their commissions in the United States Army and the U.S. Navy to serve in armed rebellion against their own country, but the Southerners who resisted the appeal to treason and remained loyal to their country and Constitution.

Image result for winfield scott

Although Virginian Gen. Winfield Scott was unable to take the field when the Civil War broke out, he did help President Abraham Lincoln devise the strategy that eventually won the war while remaining loyal to his country.

Take Winfield Scott, for instance. Serving as the U.S. Army’s commander in chief when the war began, Virginian Scott not only remained loyal to the Union—unlike Robert Lee—but he also outlined the strategy that President Lincoln adopted that eventually won the war.

Or George H. Thomas, another Virginian, whose decision, again unlike Lee, to honor his oath to defend the Constitution cost him his family, which disowned him. Thomas rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to become one of its most respected commanders, earning the sobriquet “The Rock of Chickamauga” for the stand his corps took during that battle that prevented the complete collapse of the Union army.

Or on the civilian front, maybe Sam Houston deserves recognition for his principled stand when he was pressured to betray his country. Houston, the governor of Texas when the war broke out, refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy and so was removed from office after which he retired to his home after a distinguished political and military career in Tennessee and Texas.

Or on the female side, how about Elizabeth Van Lew, an outspoken Virginian abolitionist who decided to stay in her home in the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond, Va., where astonishingly enough, she ran an effective spy ring throughout the war that fed information to the American government. She was even able to place one of her operatives inside Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s household. Certainly she ought to be entitled to at least a few monuments for that alone.

And we shouldn’t forget the largely anonymous, regular citizens and the escaped slaves from southern states who served their country against the pressures to transfer their allegiance to the treasonous Confederacy. Surely some of the 100,000 Unionist Whites who served against the secessionists in their own states, or a few of the 94,000 escaped slaves and free Blacks who fought against the Confederacy deserve monuments to their service and heroism.

Those Black soldiers who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments deserve special recognition if anyone does. When they were first mustered into federal service they were paid less than their White comrades, although that disparity was eventually rectified. In addition, they faced excessive cruelty from Confederates when captured in battle. It was not uncommon for Black prisoners to be summarily executed, while others were forced back into slavery and otherwise brutalized.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Nathan Hughes, shown in 1893 with his wife, escaped from slavery, traveled to Illinois, joined the U.S. Army and fought to free his people before returning to Oswego after the war to farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

Many of the Black troops who served in the USCT who enlisted in Northern states were actually escaped slaves from south of the Ohio River. A good example is Kendall County’s own Nathan Hughes who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and made his way to Illinois where he subsequently enlisted in the 29th USCT Infantry Regiment. Since slavery remained legal in Kentucky throughout the war until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865, if Hughes hadn’t escaped, he would almost certainly have been prohibited from serving. Instead he had a distinguished career, being wounded twice, the first time in the hip during the infamous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., and the second time in the hand during a skirmish later in the war. The 29th, by the way, was on hand at Appomattox Courthouse when Gen. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Then there was Anthony “Tony” Burnett who was a slave during the war when Company C of the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment came to visit. Pvt. Bob Jolly apparently convinced Tony he’d have more fun riding with the cavalry, and he spent the rest of the war as a company cook. After the war, Bob and Tony came back to Oswego. Tony moved around some, apparently got married and had children, and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery here in town.

While about 5,500 Blacks from South Carolina—the state that initiated the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter—served in U.S. regiments during the war, no Whites from the Palmetto State did. But 25,000 White North Carolinians did serve in the U.S. Army during the war, joining 42,000 Tennesseans, 22,000 Virginians and thousands of others from the rest of the Confederate states.

1st Alabama Trooper

Trooper from the 1st Alabama Volunteer Cavalry, one of the only integrated units to fight during the Civil War, was mostly comprised of White pro-Union Alabama residents. (miniature by an artist on the OSW [One-Sixth Warriors] website)

If one story of the Civil War was hidden over the years, especially by Southern historians and propagandists, it was this huge number of White and Black Southerners who declined to participate in the mass treason that was the Confederate States of America. I was about as guilty as anyone in failing to be aware of just how many patriotic Southerners there were between 1861 and 1865. It really didn’t click for me until our second visit to the Gettysburg National Battlefield when an exhibit in the on-site museum caught my eye enumerating the numbers of Southerners who fought for the Union.

A big fan of Western movies as a youngster, I was familiar with the nickname “Galvanized Yankees” given to captured Southern soldiers who agreed to fight against the Plains Indian tribes during the Civil War as a way to avoid the hardships of Union prison camps. But none of the history I’d learned in junior high or high school had mentioned that tens of thousands regular Southern citizens declined to fight against their country during the war and instead fought for the Union.

Certainly these men, Black and White, deserve to be honored with monuments to their heroism in marching against the historical tide of their home states, something that led to many of the White volunteers being disowned by their families and ostracized by their communities for their refusal to commit treason.

If the recent past’s arguments about who deserves a monument have taught us anything, it ought to be that erecting heroic statues to traitors is not a good idea. Nor is the puzzling practice of proudly waving the Confederacy’s battle flag. After all, you don’t see statues erected in honor of World War II German generals in Germany, and statues and other monuments to monsters such as Saddam Hussein came tumbling down as soon as people realized they didn’t need to be afraid of them any more. And flying flags bearing swastikas is a good way to get arrested in Germany.

So if people want to be proud of Southerners who fought during the Civil War, why not honor those who remained true to the Constitution and refused to do the popular regional thing and commit treason? Seems like it’s an ideal that’s been a long time—too long a time, in fact—coming. Unless, of course, the idea behind those monuments wasn’t to honor brave Southerners in the first place, but was rather to intimidate Black citizens and those who remained loyal to the Union. Right?

 

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Snowy winter days create their own sounds, smells, and memories

Despite the effects of climate change on our Illinois winters, it still gives me a warm feeling to sit here in my office, in the house my great-grandparents built as their retirement home, and watch the flakes drift down during an early winter snowfall.

Downtown, children and adults, all dressed in high-tech, down-filled, rip-stop winter clothing hurry along the sidewalks on their way to and from stores and doctors’ and dentist offices. Today’s clothing is lighter and more comfortable and autos and other pieces of necessary machinery are more dependable, but an Illinois winter’s cold, wind, and snow are constants that conjure up memories of winters and holidays past.

1914 Transition Wastington St. winter1914

You can almost hear the sleigh bells ring looking at this image of Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914 during an early winter snowfall. (Little White School Museum photo)

These days, I chiefly recall that era of decades past by its sounds and smells.

The sound of a small boy walking along a snowy lane with corduroy pants and five-buckle boots seemed unnaturally loud during a quiet early morning snowfall. Each step produced a “whoop-clink!” as first one and then another corduroyed leg noisily brushed against its brother with a rough-soft sound punctuated by the boot buckles’ musical jingle.

If the weather was right and the snowflakes were too, the tiny crackle each one made as it landed could be heard—if a sharp young ear was close enough to a winter coat’s arm.

Trudging along a country road, down a deserted village lane, or across a lonely farmstead, a winter day stroller had plenty of time to get off the road when traffic came from behind. The tire chains everyone used for traction in snow and on ice in those days before snowtires and front-wheel drive heralded each car and truck well in advance, as the chained tires squeaked and jingled and jangled through the snow.

1943 Oswego Winter

Snow’s building up fast in this photo snapped at Main and Washington in Oswego at the end of World War II. (Little White School Museum photo)

During a snowstorm, all the regular daytime sounds were muffled by the dense whiteness as it cascaded to the ground, allowing a keen ear to pick out familiar noises only now and then. Here the scrape of a shovel on a concrete drive or walk, there the joyful cry of a sledder on the way down a steep hill. But mostly, it was quiet as even the noisy English Sparrows sat hunched with their feathers fluffed for warmth, waiting for clear flying weather.

A snowstorm, if you’re paying attention, has a smell all its own. It is a sharp, clean scent that puts a person in mind of those stiffly white, freshly freeze-dried bed sheets our grandmothers once gathered in off their clothes lines in deepest January; an aroma that, I am quite sure, certain businessmen would sell their very souls for, could it be bottled and lined up on store shelves.

Out in back of the chicken house, large icicles hung down from the roof, looking for all the world like stalactites hanging from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave. There is a certain unique beauty in a clear, sharply tapering icicle. And nothing seemed quite so warm and wonderful as, while still grasping that freshly-born crystal clear icicle, going in the door of the chicken house, with its heavy smell of feathers and nesting straw complimented by the sounds of chuckling hens.

Heading back to the house pulling a brand new sled, magnificent in its varnished wood and red painted runners, that just the day before were carefully polished with a bit of steel wool and then waxed with the nub of an old candle, it was easy to imagine Arctic explorers or Eskimo hunters or even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon trudging alongside, sharing the adventures and hardships of a long, frozen journey fraught with all manner of dangers. Do you suppose a polar bear smells anything like a tail-wagging dog after she’s had a happy roll in the snow?

1945 abt Dobbin & sled

The Matile family pony, Dobbin, seems resigned to making the best of things after my sisters harnessed him to their sled.

After stamping and sweeping the snow from boots and snow pants, that wonderful kitchen all grandmothers seemed to possess, with all its special wintertime aromas, provided the perfect welcome. The cheery cookstove, all shiny white porcelain and dull black cast iron, warmed the room and provided, back behind and next to the wall, the perfect haven for a slumbering cat curled up in a cardboard box. Huge fresh-baked sugar cookies and fluted-edged molasses cookies, each with three small half-circles indented (creating dark brown smiley faces way before emojis were a gleam in someone’s digital dreams) cooling on the kitchen counter added a sweet smell of sugar and spice all their own.

The scarf was unwound, the hat and mittens removed, the thick winter coat unbuckled and unzipped. Damp mittens were put on the back of the cookstove to dry, adding a moist wool smell to the room.

Somehow, remarkable designs had appeared overnight on the kitchen windows, with mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful scenes outlined in shining frost. Who was this wintertime Picasso and why did he seem to do his finest work on the windows at Grandmother’s house? Jack Frost did it, was the unsatisfactory explanation.

In this day and age, a snowstorm’s quiet is punctuated by the muffled mechanized roar of neighborhood snowblowers and pickup mounted snowplows, but the delighted squeals of snowbound children, sentenced to frolic with sleds and snow saucers for the day, is still also there, provided you’re willing to listen hard and patiently enough.

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A winter’s snowfall erases all of Mother Nature’s mistakes, as this image of the Matile house proves.

The musical chinking of tire chains is mostly absent these days—at least in this part of the country—and the distinctive sounds made by walkers clad in corduroy pants and five buckle boots have given way to the sleeker sounds of nylon trousers and boots apparently modeled on those worn by Moon-walking astronauts. Unfortunately, our modern double-glazed windows have robbed poor old Jack Frost of his best medium; he must be content these days with fewer and fewer suitable single-pane windows—hardly what the old master deserves.

The constant, even after all these years, is the snow itself, creating a thick, soft white blanket that covers carefully manicured lawns and scarred construction sites alike after our infrequent blizzards during this era of warmer winters. But when those infrequent storms hit and for all our modem, efficient snow clearing equipment, the dense white of modern winter storms still slow our bustling suburban lives to an unwanted– but often secretly enjoyed–walk. The trick is to slow down and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

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Ghosts of Christmas Past are sort of fun folks…

Listening to an on-line holiday music channel and looking out to see another frosty morning here at the Matile Manse leads me to the conclusion that there’s no time of the year that stimulates a person’s nostalgia gland like the Christmas season.

Just about everybody has at least a few, and sometimes lots more, wonderful memories of Christmases past.

For the declining percentage of those of us who’ve lived their entire lives in the Fox Valley, the warm memories of those days gone by are tempered by the shear amazement with which we’ve been watching so many changes in our little corner of northern Illinois happen so quickly.

As part of that change, folks who live in Kendall County towns along the U.S. Route 34 corridor can now reasonably expect to do their holiday shopping in their own communities (and thereby making sure the resulting sales tax benefits themselves instead of residents of neighboring towns), something that, for several decades, was not possible. With the construction of shopping centers up and down the corridor from Sandwich east to Montgomery, shopping without leaving town has become not only possible, but with the traffic, preferable.

The thing is, though, that back in the day, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano and Sandwich residents could once do their holiday shopping in their own towns before the advent of regional shopping centers siphoned off those areas’ shoppers.

1950 Shulers Drugs

On a winter day in the 1950s, paper boys and girls wait for the Beacon-News to be dropped off at Shuler’s Drug Store so they can start their paper routes. Shuler’s annual toy sales area was in the hall above the store marked by the second story windows in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, I always figured that Al Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store on Main Street, must have been a huge fan of Christmas. When I was a kid, he’d order up a giant supply of the latest toys, which were sold from the large meeting hall on the floor above the drug and dry goods stores. On the way home from school, we’d make almost daily stops at that toy display, tromping our way up the steep stairs to make holiday wishes, our four-buckle boots jingling and swishing.

I didn’t know then, in the mid-1950s,  that the tradition of Oswego’s drug store selling an elaborate line of holiday merchandise extended nearly a century into the past, back to when pioneer druggist Levi Hall began the practice. As the Dec. 18, 1874 Kendall County Record reported:

Santa Claus in Oswego: This fine old gentleman, the patron saint of the children, has his Oswego headquarters this month at the drug store of L.N. Hall, and he requests all who love Christmas to call there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week and see what beautiful goods Mr. Hall has to sell. In the evening of those days, a beautiful Christmas tree will be lit up at 7 o’clock for the admiration of customers and little folks.

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All the guys wanted a Fanner-50 under the tree. My buddy Glenn was the only one of my friends lucky enough to get one.

That was all fine, but from my point of view, as a confirmed television-watching youngster of the ‘50s, when the Christmas shopping season began the most wonderful place on earth had to have been Amlings Flowerland. Which might seem a bit odd, to the uninitiated, especially since I never actually went to Amlings. But Amlings (“conveniently located”) was a frequent sponsor of children’s TV shows like “Elmer the Elephant” and “Garfield Goose.” For about two months a year, Amlings’ commercials bombarded us with the lure of every wonderful toy imaginable. Fanner 50 revolvers, lever-action carbines like “The Rifleman” used, dolls that walked, real two-way radios, —Amlings had them all. I made frequent requests to be taken to this magical toy shopping Mecca, but to no avail. I had no idea where Hinsdale or Ogden Avenue was, but it didn’t sound very far away. Of course, Antarctica wouldn’t have seemed too far for the chance to visit Toy Nirvana. But as far as my parents were concerned, Amlings might as well of been on the far side of the moon.

But while Amlings was definitely out, downtown Aurora was definitely in. Aurora was only about six miles up the river on Route 25, which turned into Broadway–downtown Aurora’s main street–once we passed the city limits. My family had considered Aurora our main shopping town for at least a couple generations.

Back then, Sears was located in the middle of the downtown area on Broadway. At Christmas, they’d open a special toy department up in what was apparently the attic. I remember taking the elevator as far as it would go and then climbing the steep, narrow crowded stairway to a huge room filled, mostly it seemed, with frantic parents trying to get the latest Hasbro doll or Tonka truck for their kids.

1972 Aurora

When this photo was taken in 1972, downtown Aurora still hadn’t changed all that much from the way it looked in the late 1950s. You can just make out the Korn Krib sign at right partially obscurred by Lyon & Healy’s sign. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was surprisingly similar to Al Shuler’s toy emporium—except I don’t think as many people visited Shuler’s toy display in an entire season as did the customers who shopped at the Sears display on a single frenetic Friday night.

And it wasn’t only Sears that was such a kid’s delight. Downtown Aurora as a whole at Christmas was a fascinating place for kids. There was The Book Shop on Stolp Avenue that not only sold books, but also had a wonderful selection of “educational” toys. Microscopes, real miniature steam engines, Erector sets, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets—The Book Store was an always excellent place to while away a half-hour.

The dime stores, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, had toy departments that were okay, but were nothing special. Grant’s, which wasn’t quite, but was pretty close to a dime store, had a passably good toy department, along with a truly excellent selection of comic books, including a good supply of Classics Illustrated, one of my favorite comic series.

For model kits and the only place in the south Fox Valley that sold British-made Dinky Toys, you had to take a walk south on Broadway to Fagerholm’s. They specialized in model kits, including gasoline-powered model planes, and had all the special paints needed to get just the right effect on that World War II Fletcher class destroyer or the Cutty Sark clipper ship model under construction up in my bedroom. And every once in a while I’d have enough money to add to my collection of Dinky Toy military vehicles.

Right across the street was Main Surplus where military surplus clothing and equipment shared store shelves with—bowling balls. It was the best place in town to pick up a new ball, get your old one drilled out, or get a nice bowling bag, your private towel, or your own pair of shoes.

1959 Route 25

After a hard day’s shopping in downtown Aurora, driving back south to Oswego down Ill. Route 25 offered some of the area’s nicest winter scenery. In fact, it still does. (Little White School Museum collection)

Out the door and walking north to Downer Place, a left turn took the discriminating shopper to May Electric where Lionel trains reigned supreme—at least for us kids. Parents were more interested in boring stuff like washing machines, but in the upstairs loft was the most complete selection of Lionel trains and equipment in our area. New switches, bottles of those tiny pills that made your steam locomotive smoke, signal bridges, and freight cars with little guys that actually unloaded crates of who knows what were all there, along with the newest diesel and steam engines and other rolling stock. I had my eye on a great Santa Fe diesel switch engine one year, and was almost beside myself when I found it under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking back, the amazing thing is that parents during that era thought nothing of letting their kids roam around downtown Aurora all by themselves, even at night. It was a wonderful place: the Korn Krib for some great caramel corn; or Reuland’s for hot, fresh giant cashews; or the Fox Valley Snack Shop for cantaloupe à la mode for the sophisticated palate (or a Belly-Buster for the audacious); or browsing the coming attractions posters at the Paramount or the Isle theater.

It was a time of shared experience now long gone, but far from forgotten. We like to look back and believe it was a simpler time, but it really wasn’t. The challenges were just different and us kids didn’t yet have to worry about the kinds of things our parents did. It’s entirely likely modern kids will look back on today in exactly the same way. It’s the “Good Old Days” syndrome. Thing is, some—even if not all—of those old days actually were pretty good.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, entertainment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

Remembering a forgotten casualty of World War II

It seems like most of the time I spend down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum these days is far too often devoted to paperwork of one kind or another.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much record-keeping goes into maintaining a museum collection, especially one that keeps on growing like ours does. Because, as I’ve told numerous visitors over the years, the trick’s not cataloging an item, safely storing it in proper media to assure its preservation, or putting it on a shelf or in a drawer. It’s finding it again after you do all that.

So any time I can get involved in doing actual history I consider golden. And one of those golden opportunities popped up earlier this month.

After my buddy, assistant museum director Bob Stekl, and his band of enthusiastic volunteers got this year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit mounted and opened (it ran Nov. 4-12 this year), Bob was giving a tour to a group of Cub Scouts when he realized something important appeared to be missing.

In each year’s exhibit, we feature a special section on those Oswegoans who were killed in action, from the Civil War through Vietnam. The World War II section of the special exhibit included posters honoring five local residents killed in action: Frank Clauser, Kay Fugate, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer Jr.

But when Bob and the group of Scouts moved on to another part of the exhibit and he started explaining about the community’s World War II service flag, he noticed something didn’t add up. The large service flag had a blue star on it for every community resident, male or female, serving in the war. When one of them was killed in action, their blue star was replaced with a gold star. And there were six, not five, gold stars on that flag.

1935 Squires School students

The students and teacher at Squires School in 1935. Elwyn Holdiman is circled in the back row. Squires School was located at the northeast corner of U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the tour was over, Bob headed back down into the museum archives to figure out what was going on. It didn’t take long before he found our missing gold star serviceman, Corporal Elwyn Holdiman.

When Bob told me about it the next day, we decided a poster honoring Holdiman’s service was needed right away, and so I started gathering information about him, all the while thinking that last name sounded familiar. We got the poster up later that day, but I continued to research Holdiman and his family for the biographical file we started on him.

It turned out the Holdimans had been in America for a long, long time. Elwyn’s sixth-times great grandparents, Christian and Christina Haldeman (the name evolved over the years), immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German-speaking Swiss canton of Bern sometime prior to 1716 when their son, Johannes (Elwyn’s fifth-times great grandfather), was born in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Johannes and his wife, Anna Marie ventured into the Virginia frontier of the 1750s, where Anna Marie was killed by Indians in 1758 during the French and Indian War. Their descendants subsequently settled in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, remaining for several decades before heading west with so many of their Pennsylvania German-speaking neighbors, to the rich prairies of Wheatland Township in Will County.

Elwyn’s great-grandfather, Joseph Holdiman, made that trip, probably in the late 1840s, and in 1850 married Catherine Lantz, newly arrived with her family, also from Pennsylvania. The couple had eight children before they decided to seek their fortunes farther west in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Their son, also named Joseph, born in Wheatland Township, stayed in the Wheatland area where he and his wife raised their family, including a son named Albert, Elwyn’s father.

Albert and his wife, Emma Lombard Holdiman, farmed in the area around Yorkville and Oswego, where they raised their 10 children. Elwyn, their third child, was born on January 20, 1920 in Oswego Township and attended the one-room Squires School at modern U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road near Oswego and worked as a farmhand. And that’s what he was doing when he was drafted.

Sherman Tank schematic

Plan view of an M4 Sherman tank, arguably the most successful tank of World War II. Elwyn Holdiman operated his tank’s main gun.

On the day after his 22nd birthday, the Jan. 21, 1942, Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that: “Oswego men selected for induction from the local draft included Cecil E. Carlson, Paul T. Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer.”

After basic training, Pvt. Holdiman was assigned to the tank corps and was trained as a gunner on the M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard U.S. tank of World War II. The gunner controlled the tank’s main 75mm gun, and the .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret beside the main gun, though he followed the tank commander’s orders on what to shoot. Each weapon was fired with a foot switch on the gunner’s footrest. The gunner controlled the turret either with a hydraulic system independent of the tanks motor, or a manual back-up system using a crank and gears. Although the Sherman gunner’s view was very limited, it was better than most other tanks of the era. A good gunner working with a good loader in the 75mm armed Sherman could get off two or three aimed shots in very short time, a big advantage in combat.

7th Armored shoulder patch

U.S. Army’s 7th Armored Division shoulder patch

He was sent to Company C, in the 17th Tank Battalion, part of the brand new 7th Armored Division, activated at Camp Polk, Louisiana, under command of Gen. Lindsay Silvester on March 1, 1942. The division trained in Louisiana and Texas through early November 1942 and then underwent desert training in California. Then it was back east for more training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Along the way, Pvt. Holdiman was promoted and became Corporal Holdiman.

On June 6, 1944, the day the Allies waded ashore on the beaches at Normandy, Holdiman and the rest of the men of the 7th Armored Division embarked aboard the SS Queen Mary in New York harbor for a fast trip across the Atlantic to England. After final training in England, they boarded landing craft bound for Normandy, the division going ashore on Omaha and Utah Beaches, Aug. 13-14. Once ashore, they were assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s newly activated U.S. Third Army.

Sherman tank

U.S. Army M4 Sherman tank.

As part of Patton’s breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the division drove through Nogent-le-Rotrou to take Chartres on Aug. 18, then on Verdun, and finally across the Moselle River.

In late September, the 7th Armored Division was tasked with supporting Operation Market Garden, the combined arms invasion of the Netherlands recounted in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” From Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, they fought in the Battle for Overloon and from Oct. 7-26 were in action around Griendtsveen and patrolling around Ell-Weert-Meijel-Deurne, before they were engaged in the Battle of the Canals starting Oct. 27.

In a tank battle on Oct. 29 against the German 9th Panzer Division a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire while Company C was supporting an infantry push. He was killed in action, along with the rest of the crew (which was one man short, the assistant gunner position), 2nd Lt. Robert W. Denny, the tank’s commander; loader and machine gunner Pvt. Michael Ferris; and Tec 4 Leo W. Goers, the tank’s driver.

According to the after action report concerning Company C filed by the 17th Tank Battalion about the action on Oct. 29: “This Company did an excellent job but they lost Lt. DENNY who had just recently been Commissioned from the ranks, he had previously been a Platoon Sergeant in the same Company, Lt. DENNY was an excellent leader and his loss is a great loss to the Company. “C” Company lost four tanks in this action and they definitely knocked out five German Tanks.”

Holdiman tombstone

Corporal Elwyn Holdiman’s memorial on the Holdiman family marker in Lincoln Memorial Park, Oswego Township.

Elwyn’s parents, Albert and Hazel Holdiman, were first notified that he was missing in action before they finally learned he had ben killed. While his remains were buried in Europe, the family erected a marker in the memory of his sacrifice in Oswego Township’s Lincoln Memorial Park.

And the fact that the Holdiman name sounded familiar to me? It turned out that Elwyn and I are third cousins—I remembered the name from my family history. My great-great grandfather’s sister, Catherine Lantz, married Joseph Holdiman. They were Elwyn’s great-grandparents.

Strangely enough, Holdiman’s sacrifice was not commemorated, as were the ultimate sacrifices of virtually every other local soldier and sailor.

But we’ve gone a bit towards rectifying our own oversight, as well as that committed by anyone else since that day in late October 1944 when Elwyn Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by German gunfire. And in so doing, we’ve uncovered another piece of the history of the Oswego area that, hopefully, won’t be forgotten again.

 

 

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