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1873: The year Kendall County farmers flexed their political muscle

Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.

In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].

But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].

1870s CB&Q locomotive

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad Company leased an engine like this one from the CB&Q Railroad while the line was under construction. When the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to wrest ownership away and maintain their monopoly on rail freight in the Fox Valley.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.

Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.

But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.

Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.

Bradwell, Myra

Myra Colby Bradwell worked with her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, to establish women’s suffrage in Illinois in the early 1870s.

Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.

On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.

“We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

German immigrant farmers from the Oswego Prairie Church neighborhood flew this flag on their way to the July 4, 1873 farmers’ and laborers’ picnic in Yorkville. The flag is now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.

The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.

Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.

Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.

Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.

Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Fox River, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Women's History

When it comes to local government, you really do get what you pay for

The other day I was digging through a file of things I’d meant to write about someday (it’s a BIG file!) when I came across some interesting stuff about my hometown, Oswego, Illinois. Back in September 2016, the Value Penguin web site ranked Oswego as the worst town in Illinois in which to own a home. Then just a month later, the WalletHub web site ranked Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities, not only in Illinois but in the entire nation.

Clearly, studies like these two should always be considered with caution, but after reading both, it appeared Value Penguin’s analysis was heavily weighted towards tax burden, while WalletHub’s was heavily weighted towards quality of life.

“WalletHub’s analysts compared 1,268 cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 30 key indicators of livability,” according to the site’s news release, which I’d downloaded in hopes of doing something with it. “They range from ‘housing costs’ to ‘school-system quality’ to ‘number of restaurants per capita,’” the release continued.

After reading the release and thinking about the criteria WalletHub used, it was pretty clear their results strongly suggested that you get what you pay for.

Here in Oswego and in Kendall County in general, we have a fairly high property tax burden thanks to the way state politicians have gamed the system of financing government to make it extremely unfair and to also ensure their own reelections. As a result, regressive taxes, such as sales and property taxes, have become more and more prominent in financing local and state government while the income tax, a far more fair tax, has become increasingly marginalized.

But at least here in Oswego, we actually do get pretty much what we pay for. Those high property taxes finance a solid school system and outstanding park, library, and fire districts, all of which provide services that enhance the quality of life WalletHub values so highly.

1984 June Lippold, Ford cropped

Ford Lippold was a major force in creating the modern community residents see today.

I remember one Memorial Day, after watching our local parade and visiting the cemetery for the annual ceremony, mentioning to my wife that the guys who went off to war did a good job of protecting our American way of life. She replied that she thought politicians of the past ought to get some of the credit, too, something at the time I considered an interesting statement that strikes me as more and more profound as time passes.

Because today’s Oswego didn’t just pop into being fully and completely the way we see it today. It took a lot of careful work by a lot of people, many of them elected officials, to get us here.

The foundations for the modern community we enjoy today were laid in the immediate post-World War II era, when all of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines came home to either restart their old lives or to begin something completely new. There was an urgency back then that shines through the stories in the pages of the Oswego Ledger, the weekly newspaper Oswego native Ford Lippold started in 1949.

With all those young men marrying women of childbearing age, the post-war Baby Boom was just getting underway. All those new families needed homes and jobs. Uncle Sam stepped in to help supply both through generous G.I. Bill programs that helped veterans buy homes with virtually no down payment, and also offered to send them to college virtually for free. Millions of former service men took the government up on their offers, creating a housing boom and a huge pool of highly-educated workers hungry for their chance to make good. It turned out to be the biggest government stimulus program in history, and one of the most valuable to the nation’s economic health.

Here in Oswego it meant, at first, new subdivisions and area new employment opportunities. The first post-war housing developments were relatively small. But after Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of AT&T, announced plans for local factories, the era of big housing developments began.

1959 BH sign

Boulder Hill was the Fox Valley’s first large unincorporated subdivision. It was planned by developer Don L. Dise to have its own schools, churches, and shopping areas, along the lines of the Levittown development in his native Pennsylvania. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first of these was Boulder Hill, proposed on the former Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family. The force behind Boulder Hill was developer Don L. Dise working with a group of financial backers. While the Caterpillar and Western Electric announcements had gotten some attention, Dise’s proposal to develop more than 700 acres into an entirely new community with its own schools, churches, and stores really made folks sit up and take notice.

Interestingly enough, there was little opposition to all these new developments. Instead, the folks in charge of local government—many of whom were parents of my school classmates—decided that growth was good for Oswego and the community was going to grow and that long-range planning was needed to cope with it.

In the Aug. 4, 1955 Ledger under the heading “Village Planning Commission Needed?” Lippold wrote: “It is time to wake up and recognize the fact that Oswego and adjoining territory is growing and at an accelerated pace…Many communities faced with like problems have formed a planning committee to prepare for a systematic and orderly growth…Now is the time! Oswego is growing! Let’s keep it growing! Tomorrow may be too late!”

1957 abt Boulder Hill aerial

This aerial view of Boulder Hill under development, taken in 1957, shows the Western Electric plant at upper right, along with U.S. Route 30 Bypass under construction, and the new Caterpillar plant under construction at upper left. (Little White School Museum collection)

With Boulder Hill already under construction inside the Oswego School District, the grade and high school boards had already started planning for the future. Looking at this piecemeal approach, Oswego Township government, under the direction of township supervisor Wayne Fosgett (the father of another of my classmates), organized local school, municipal, and other officials to look into some professional land planning. Two weeks later, the Ledger reported that at a meeting of local elected and appointed officials, “A committee consisting of John Carr, Dr. M.R. Saxon, Mrs. Homer Brown, Charles Lippincott, and Jerome Nelson was appointed to talk with Western Electric personnel officers concerning the likely needs of workers at the new plant.”

The committee was also charged with talking with Boulder Hill developer Dise about “preliminary planning on schools, parks, fire protection, etc.”

Even at that early date, Oswego had a few things going for it. A fire protection district had been established back in the late 1930s to provide fire protection not only to the village of Oswego, but also to the large rural area surrounding it. In addition, by 1955 the community had a robust park district whose programming, especially for children, was growing. The community also had use of the small community library operated by the Nineteenth Century Club, a women’s civic organization.

The idea to establish a comprehensive development plan began gaining widespread community support. In early September 1955, a petition containing the names of 220 Oswego registered voters was presented to the village board recommending establishing a comprehensive development plan be established. At a special board meeting later that month, the board approved an ordinance establishing an 11-member planning commission.

But the wheels of even local government move slowly. By early December, there had been no movement on the part of the village to appoint plan commission members, and Ledger editor Lippold reminded the community that time was wasting. “The time is urgent. The need is urgent. Let us hope that the plan commission is completed and in operation by the January board meeting,” he wrote.

By January 18, the village was ready to move, and that evening Oswego’s first plan commission, consisting of William K. Miller, Douglas Dreier, Henry W. Smith, Mrs. Lester (Dorothy) Bell, Mrs. Stanley Drew, John Luettich, Rev. G. Albert Murphy, Everett McKeown, and Stanley Herren was appointed.

The community was becoming aware of what awaited them as growth began to accelerate. There was plenty of agricultural land surrounding Oswego that could easily be subdivided. And with the exception of Caterpillar and Western Electric, there was very little industrial and commercial property available to take the tax burden off homeowners and farmers. Writing in the March 8, 1956 Ledger, Lippold commented: “Oswego is in a position where it will certainly get the full force of the influx of population. We are on the fringe of a huge industrial area and the trend from metropolitan Chicago is in our direction. If we are going to get the houses and the people, we might just as well have the industry and reap the tax benefits therefrom. Industry will ease the tax load on every person in the community. It is a good thing for our county and township officials to be thinking of, as well as our plan commission. Oswego is going to grow. The handwriting is on the wall. Now is the time to plan.”

The need was becoming much more urgent, and as community leaders gave the matter some thought, they realized that any planning effort had to be broad-based and not simply limited to the Oswego village limits. As a result, officials from Oswego Township, the grade and high school districts, the fire protection district, and representatives from the community’s civic organizations made the collective decision to significantly broaden the community planning base.

1957 Oswego Comp Plan

The cover of Oswego Park District President Ralph Wheeler’s copy of the 1957 comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum collection)

At the annual Oswego Township meeting in April 1956, the electors attending voted $400 towards financing a community comprehensive plan. Then in late May about 50 community leaders, along with village officials and members of the new Oswego Plan Commission met at Oswego High School to hear a presentation by planners with Everett Kincaid and Associates, a prominent Chicago planning firm.

Lippold kept the pressure on, commenting in the May 30, 1956 Ledger: “This is a time for working together in our community. It is a time for thinking ahead and planning. It is a time for doing. How well we plan, how well we work will decide whether Oswego progresses or becomes a dusty spider-web covered community.”

The next week, the village board agreed to spend $2,500 to hire Kincaid to draw up a comprehensive development plan for Oswego and Oswego Township. The board expressed the hope that participation in drawing up the plan would be community-wide. On Feb. 21, 1957, the completed plan was unveiled to a crowd of more than 200 area residents at a special meeting at Oswego High School. “Oswego is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, town in this part of the United States to have such an official plan prepared and ready for adoption,” Lippold noted in the Ledger.

The village board eventually adopted the Kincaid plan after they adopted their first subdivision ordinance, building code, and land use maps. In late May 1957, the board formally approved the Kincaid plan and it was printed for distribution.

From that beginning, the Oswego area began growing as more and more folks moved into Dise’s Boulder Hill Subdivision, as well as into the other subdivisions being developed in and around Oswego. The transition from a small farming area to a fast-growing suburban community definitely put stress on local institutions. Dise pledged to help a bit by offering $100 to local taxing districts for each of his new homes. But the area needed some new resources, too.

During the Great Depression, Oswego had received Works Progress Administration funds to operate a summer recreation program for youngsters. In the post-war years, as members of the Baby Boom began making their presence felt, the community again began looking for some way to entertain them. In 1948, at the urging of the Oswego Parent-Teacher Association, a community recreation committee was established with Al Shuler as chairman, Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Secretary, and Max Cutter, treasurer. John Luettich, Mrs. O. W. (Jane) Patterson, Don Pinnow, and Ford L. Lippold, were directors. The committee canvassed the community and received $1,000 in donations to start a summer recreation program. In late 1949, another fund drive met with only lukewarm success, suggesting to the committee that a more formal funding mechanism was needed. The recreation board acting as the organizers, a drive was begun to establish a park district that would be funded through property taxes. In April 1950, voters approved establishing the new taxing district by a vote of 263-137. The first board of park commissioners elected that spring was Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Mrs. O.W. Patterson, William Anderson, Arthur Davis, and Ralph Wheeler.

1964 Oswego Pub Library dedication A

The Oswego Township Library was dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1964. Its construction was financed with community donations in a campaign organized by the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new public library was built through public subscription, opening in 1964 as a township library. In April 1977, by a 2-1 margin, township residents voted to change the library’s governance to a library district to protect its broad property tax base.

In 1962, the separate grade and high school districts merged to form Oswego Community Consolidated Unit School District 308, educating students from first through 12th grades. A few years later, kindergarten was added to the district, mostly at the urging of residents of Boulder Hill.

A few years later, reflecting the reality that it served more areas than simply the village of Oswego, the park district officially changed its name to the Oswegoland Park District.

“As more than two-thirds of the residents in the district live outside the village limits, it was felt that the Oswegoland designation would be more representative of the geography of the district,” Lippold reported in the Feb. 2, 1966 Ledger. “The Oswegoland Park District covers a 36 square mile area in the shape of a square with each side being six miles in length.”

So by 1977, the basic underpinning of the Oswego area community that led WalletHub to honor Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities in the U.S. were in place. Since then, Oswego’s population has literally exploded from 1980’s 3,012 residents to the latest estimate of 34,571, while Oswego Township’s total population has also boomed, from 1980s 16,772 to a population of 50,870 in 2010, the latest date I’ve been able to find a figure for.

Absorbing that many people in such a relatively short period of time—Oswego’s municipal population as late as 1990 was just 3,876—while maintaining a relatively high standard of living and making the community a desirable place to raise a family didn’t come about by accident. It started all the way back in 1956 when those newly discharged World War II draftees and enlistees started raising their families and looking towards making their community a good place to live. But they also—and this is the really important part of the story—wanted the Oswego area to be a nice place to live for those who came after them. We owe a significant debt of gratitude to people like Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, strong advocate of youth recreation programs, and the first director of the Oswego Park District; Bill Miller, member of the first plan commission and village board member; Wayne Fosgett, Oswego Township Supervisor and strong community planning advocate; Jane Patterson, Oswego business owner and strong advocate of local parks and comprehensive planning; Dick Young, environmentalist, public official, author, and another strong advocate for planning and zoning; and so many others who volunteered their time and often their own treasure to make our community what it is today.

Local officials, the folks who serve, often at no pay, on the park, school, library, township, fire, county, and village boards come in for a lot of criticism—some of it justified!—but they work hard, and for the most part their efforts have made the Oswego area into what even people outside the community believe is a good place to live.

 

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Filed under Government, History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History

Spring planting a tradition around these parts for millennia

Spring planting is about ready to begin once again on the Illinois prairie, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago.

The first American pioneer farmers arrived here in the Fox River Valley area in the late 1820s. But the region’s Native People had already been farming for thousands of years by the time those first settlers arrived.

Most experts previously believed that agriculture in what is now the continental U.S. was imported from Mexico, along with the trinity of subtropical crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. What is now accepted, after decades of archaeological work, is that the eastern United States is one of about ten regions in the world to become independent centers of agricultural origin.

The initial four plants known to have been domesticated by those earliest, pre-maize prehistoric farmers were goosefoot, sunflowers, marsh elder, and squash. Several other species of plants were subsequently added to the list of domesticated wild plants.

After 200 BCE when maize—corn—from Mexico was introduced into what is now the eastern United States, the Native People of the present-day United States and Canada soon stopped growing domesticated varieties of native plants, switching to an agricultural economy based on growing fields of maize complimented by beans and squash. As that evolution took place, the cultivation of domesticated native plants declined until it was almost wholly abandoned, and the domesticated native plants quickly reverted to their wild forms.

Cultivating Crops

Native People began cultivating and modifying native plants thousands of years ago.

Horticulture intensified in the Woodland period, and most Native American populations began living in villages near their fields. In about AD 800, corn and beans reached the Mississippi Valley, and by about AD 1000, the Mississippian culture that relied on corn, beans, and squash was established in Alabama.

Squash of the Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana variety is considered to be one of the first domesticated native plants in the Eastern Woodland region, having been found in use here some 7,000 years ago. However, it doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly domesticated until around 3,000 years ago.

That earliest variety of squash was originally raised for its edible seeds, and used for small containers (gourds) when dried. Squash with edible flesh came quite a bit later.

Other edible native plants domesticated by the region’s Native People included little barley, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers.

These edible plants are often divided by those studying the subject into “oily” and “starchy” categories. Oily edible seeds are produced by sunflowers and sumpweeds, while erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive Japanese cousin) and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starchy. Maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that produce grains that may be ground to make flour, are also starches.

So how have we discovered all this new information? According to the most recent findings by archaeologists, humans were already collecting native edible plants by 6,000. Then Native People discovered by could modify them by selective breeding and cultivation. Archaeologists confirmed that process in the 1970s when they began noticing significant differences in seeds, burned and otherwise, collected in Native Peoples’ village sites, especially when those seeds were compared to their counterparts still growing in the wild. When carefully studied, the seeds collected in village sites were not only larger, but they were also easier to separate from their shells, husks, or chaff. It was those comparisons that led archaeologists to conclude ancient farmers had begun manipulating the genetics of wild plants by selective breeding much longer ago than previously thought.

One of the major regions where these successful efforts at ancient agriculture flourished is right here in the middle Mississippi River Valley, stretching from Memphis in the south to St. Louis in the north in a belt roughly 300 miles on either side of the river in the current states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

So far, the oldest-known archaeological site in the United States where ancient people have been found to be purposefully growing—rather than gathering—food is the Phillips Spring site in Missouri. At Phillips Spring, dating from 3,000 BCE, Archaeologists have found large numbers of walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, grapes, elderberries, ragweed, bottle gourd, and the seeds of a gourd that produces edible seeds that is the ancestor of pumpkins and most squashes. The gourd seeds found at the site were significantly larger than the wild variety, leading archaeologists to determine the plants’ genetics had been purposefully manipulated by native farmers who selected, planted, and then carefully tended the seeds that produced ever larger and more nutritious seeds. And eventually, continual genetic manipulation led to the gourds producing edible flesh as well.

Marsh elder is one of the many native plants ancient Native People domesticated for use as food before the introduction of maize–corn–an import from Mexico.

By 1800 BCE, Native People considered part of the Late Archaic cultural tradition in our region of the United States were cultivating a number of different plants. At the Riverton Site near downstate Palestine, IL in Crawford County, archaeologists have excavated one of best-known sites that illustrate the ancient people’s cultivation and domestication of native plants. At the Riverton Site, 10 dwelling houses have been excavated and studied, suggesting a village with a population of between 50 and 100 people. The fire hearths and storage pits excavated turned out to include a large number of plant remains. Among those remains were large numbers of seeds goosefoot, also called lamb’s quarters that the scientists determined came from cultivated and domesticated plants. They reached this conclusion because some of the seeds had husks only a third as thick as the plants’ wild varieties, making them much easier to process into food after harvesting.

As the years passed into the Middle Woodland cultural tradition, gardeners continued to cultivate and improve squash and gourds as Archaic Indians had done, but they also domesticated several other native plants that are considered to be weeds today. Building on their knowledge of Illinois’ native plants, Middle Woodland people began to establish gardens of goosefoot, marsh elder, little barley, maygrass, and other varieties of squash. Each autumn, they saved seeds from the best of the plants growing in their fields and then planted them when spring rolled around again. Eventually, these Native People became increasingly committed to particular plots of land and created a way of life organized around both wild and domesticated plants.

But change, in the form of maize, was just over the horizon. Strangely enough, though, as well as we know maize—we’ve been cultivating it around these parts for many hundreds of years now—we know very little about its origin. Many of those trying to figure out where it came from have fingered a grass named teosinte as the ancestor of modern corn. But there’s a fairly serious problem: Teosinte does not have a cob. This has led some of those looking into the mystery to suggest corn’s ancestor was some other wild grass that has now disappeared entirely.

Researchers Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, suggest in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica that: “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

One problem is, however, that this “wild form” of corn has never been found in either the historical or archaeological record.

Another significant problems is there is no evidence that the early peoples of the Americas ever used or harvested teosinte. Finally, it has been theorized for a long time now that the Maya of Central and South America had cultivated and crossbred teosinte into maize. But no evidence has ever been discovered of this, either.

About all archaeologists and plant scientists have been able to nail down is that maize quickly became the most important staple grain in ancient Mexico. Ziz maize suddenly appeared about 4800 BCE on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco, Mexico, for instance. But there are no known wild specie of it in that area, suggesting it was imported, even at that early date, from somewhere else. After its abrupt appearance, the cultivation and genetic enhancement of maize became the focus of ancient American farmers.

But while maize quickly became the most important food grain for ancient peoples beans weren’t far behind. According to most current evidence, beans were originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala—the same areas where Zia maize was developed. The really neat thing about the beans those ancient farmers crossbred and improved so long ago is that beans’ proteins naturally complement the proteins in maize. Beans, it turns out, produce the acids lysine and tryptophan that nicely complement the amino acid zein from maize.

So with the invention of corn and beans, two of the legs of the Native Peoples’ Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—were in place where they joined the third leg that had already been undergoing genetic breeding for thousands of years.

2017 planting corn in Illinois

In another month and a half, area farmers will once again be looking to start planting corn and beans–just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Although it’s pretty obvious the methods they’ll be using this year have undergone some changes.

It took a while, but gradually maize and its complimentary beans spread north into the Mississippi River Valley, where its cultivation quickly displaced growing the region’s domesticated crops. Corn, beans, and native squash and other gourds caused the abandonment of the old, locally developed, strains of little barley, lambsquarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers, and the reversion of the cultivated strains of those plants to their native states.

Now, many centuries after corn and beans made their way north of their native Mexico and Central America, they still make up the bulk of the fields farmers in the Fox Valley plant. Granted, today’s soybeans are a strain developed in Asia, where they were being grown as long ago as 7000 BCE. It has always seemed ironic to me that our modern soybeans were developed by the descendants of some of the same people who crossed the land bridge to North America tens of thousands of years ago to become the people who also invented corn. All of which is nice historic and prehistoric symmetry, don’t you think?

 

 

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It’s about time…

Remember that hour of sleep you gained last November when we went on Central Standard Time? Well it is coming due for payment as we switch to Central Daylight Savings Time. Before you go to bed on Saturday night, March 10, be sure to set your clocks ahead an hour.

As of 2 a.m. that Sunday morning here in the Central Time Zone, we all moved to Central Daylight Savings Time, meaning when it’s noon in Yorkville, it’s also noon in Ottumwa, Ia. and in Green Bay, Wis.

As you have probably gathered from material I’ve written over the years, one of the things I’m fascinated with is how things we take for granted came to be the way they are today. And time was, when it was 9 a.m. here in Oswego, it wasn’t anywhere close to 9 a.m. in, say, Council Bluffs, Ia. because each community set their clocks by when the sun was directly overhead at noon.

Image result for railroad time

The original time zone map for the United States has undergone a few modifications since the system was established in 1883, but for the most part the zones established 135 years ago are still largely intact.

This really wasn’t much of a problem for the first hundred years of the nation’s existence, but with the advent of railroads and their rapid expansion across the country, timing became a real challenge. It wasn’t only an issue with travelers, but safely scheduling increasingly fast trains on multiple tracks became a real, and sometimes deadly, problem.

So the big railroads in the U.S. and Canada got together and in 1883, they announced a new system of time zones across North America in which the time would be identical for all areas within each zone. And when the railroads, then the biggest economic power in the country, announced their new time zones were going to be put into effect starting Nov. 18, 1883, the entire nation was pretty much obliged to go along with them.

The Nov. 22, 1883 Kendall County Record announced the new time schedule in a prominent article headlined “Change of Railroad Time; Nine Minutes Slower.” As Record Editor John R. Marshall reported:

“By concerted action, which has been under discussion for some time, the leading railroads have established a new method of reckoning time, and it went into effect on Sunday last at noon.

“Heretofore, trains on different [rail]roads have been run on Chicago time or St. Louis time or Burlington or New York time, as the managers saw fit, and much inconvenience has been occasioned thereby. Now, instead of time being changed by the sun as we proceed east or west, for certain territories a fixed time has been established without regard to the time the sun’s ascension or declination would show. The territory is arbitrarily fixed by meridian lines, if we understand the matter rightly. With us, it is the 19th Meridian, known as ‘Central Standard Time,’ and it is nine minutes slower than Chicago time. This standard reaches to all points east of the Missouri river, so that, if we read right, 12 noon at Chicago is 12 noon at Council Bluffs, Ia. Under the old time, when it was 12 at Washington [D.C.], it was 11:17 at Chicago and 10:44 at Council Bluffs.”

A press release furnished the Record by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad informed Marshall that:

“This new time will be generally adopted by all the railroads in this section of the country and I would suggest the advisability of your considering its adoption for the standard time in your city.”

In other words, communities were free to adopt the new standard time or not. But since all of the nation’s railroads were going to operate on the new time, and since railroads were then the backbone of the nation’s economic system, not adopting the new standard simply didn’t make much sense.

Locally, the impact wasn’t very great since Kendall County is so close to the center of what became the new Central Time Zone. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent observed in his Nov. 29 column:

“The new time arrangement by the railroad authorities has called forth many newspaper notices. This locality is hardly any affected by it, being left with the true time nearly as much so as before—the Chicago time by which it was governed was about 4 minutes too fast, that now adopted 5 minutes too slow—but on the dividing lines its effects will be much felt and work queerly.”

As Rank noted:

“On the west side of the line the time always will be 30 minutes ahead of the true time, while on the east side it will be 30 minutes behind, making a difference of one hour between the two sections, so when a man jumps on a horse and gallops to a place east over the line some distance, making it in 30 minutes, he will get there a half hour before he started from home, but in returning at the same speed, it will take him an hour and a half.”

Not all areas of the country agreed with the railroads’ effective seizure of authority to set local time. But use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communications and travel.

Image result for daylight savings time 1918

Daylight Savings Time was introduced as an energy saving measure during World War I. Dropped after the war, it was reestablished when World War II broke out.

Odd as it may seem, standardized time zones across the country were not established by U.S. law until the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918, which also established Daylight Savings Time, a much more controversial idea, especially in rural areas like Kendall County.

Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1895 that George Vernon Hudson proposed its modern incarnation. Not until wartime conditions made the time right to establish nationally standardized time did Hudson’s idea become law. And an unpopular one at that.

But given the patriotism stirred up by World War I, the nation was willing to give it a try. Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall (son of John R. Marshall quoted above) observed that the idea didn’t prove as problematic as many feared, asking in the April 3, 1918 edition:

“Didn’t mind it, did you? You never noticed the change of time after the novelty wore off, but did you notice that you did not burn so much light at night as before?”

But the nation’s farmers did notice it. Because the cows that needed milking and the cattle and hogs and chickens that needed feeding didn’t care one little bit about what the farmers’ clocks said. They were running on their own internal clocks provided and maintained by Mother Nature, not some arbitrary schedule, even if it was codified into law.

While Congress voted to repeal Daylight Savings Time after the war—over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson—the idea of standardized time zones across the entire country remained enshrined in law. Daylight Savings Time returned once again during World War II, again touted as a method of saving energy. Referred to as “War Time,” Congress again voted to repeal it as soon as the war was over, much to the glee of farmers across the nation. The Record’s Oswego correspondent happily observed in the Oct. 31, 1945 edition:

O! the joy and peace and contentment when the announcer is heard to say, “We have no two-timers this morning; Central Standard has come to stay,” (we hope).”

Daylight Savings Time was finally made law in 1974 in the midst of the energy crisis, touted, just as it had been during the two world wars, as a way to save energy. And this year, come Nov. 18, we’ll observe the 135th anniversary of the day they made everyone and every thing in the nation’s time zones start running on the same times.

 

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When giving human beings as wedding gifts was fashionable

It’s always puzzled me why Black History Month (or is it African American History Month? Views differ…) is observed in February. It seems to me it would have been more fitting had it been observed in January, since that’s when the birthday of the nation’s foremost African American civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated his birthday and when the nation celebrates it to this day.

But February it is, and each year in my “Reflections” column for Shaw Media, Inc., I try to mark the observance with explaining how African Americans affected local history. Which is a surprise to many because that little Kendall County once had a thriving population of black farm families, whose descendants still live in the Fox Valley is one of the area’s little-known facts.

This year, I decided to tell the story of two women who were given away as wedding presents, one local and one not. It strains credulity these days to consider there was a time in this country when one person not only owned another, but could simply give them away as gifts. But the custom was common for the first two centuries of the European settlement of North America. But nevertheless it’s true.

The plight of these two women, one of whom was owned by George Washington, President of the United States, and the other owned and then freed by an eventual resident of Kendall County, came to my attention through the reading list for my daily exercise program.

Exercise is boring, so I try to choose books that are lively reads to make my morning stint on the NuStep machine go faster, and also try to mix fiction with non-fiction. Having just finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (highly recommended), I decided to try a book I stumbled across on Amazon with the intriguing title of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.

And it proved as thought-provoking as I suspected it would. In her biography of Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar relates the story of Judge’s early life as a slave at Mount Vernon, how her life changed when George Washington was elected President, and her eventual escape after Martha Washington decided to convert Judge into a wedding present for her granddaughter. After all, Judge was just one more of the Washington family’s possessions.

And the book got me thinking about the similarities between Ona Judge and another enslaved black woman, Ann Lewis, who had also been a wedding present, but who was freed by her owners, moved with them to Kendall County, and started a family that still lives in the area.

Judge began planning her escape from slavery in the spring of 1796, when Martha Custis Washington notified the slave girl that she was being given Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present.

Image result for escaped female slave poster

After the importation of slaves was outlawed, the price of slaves increased sharply as this poster for a $300 reward for a runaway slave woman from 1853 suggests. In today’s dollars, the reward offered for Emily would equal more than $9,000.

Judge had been born at the Washingtons’ plantation, Mount Vernon, about 1776, from the union of her enslaved mother, Betty, and her white father, Andrew Judge, a Mount Vernon tailor. Ona was trained as a seamstress and body servant by her mother, and when the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia, New York, and Philadelphia again after George Washington’s election as President, she was taken along to serve the First Lady.

Things went well for the slaves who accompanied the President and Mrs. Washington until the U.S. seat of government was moved back to Philadelphia in 1790, where it was to remain until the new capital at Washington City in what was to be called the District of Columbia was built. Before the end of the Revolution, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, a provision of which mandated that if someone brought slaves into the state, they would automatically be freed after six months’ residence. The act was amended in 1788 to close loopholes. Acting on the advice of U.S. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Washington circumvented the law by sending slaves who were nearing their six months’ anniversary in Philadelphia home to Virginia for a few weeks, before bringing them back again to restart freedom’s clock.

That was undoubtedly annoying enough for the Washingtons’ slaves who understood perfectly well what George and Martha were doing. But when Martha informed Ona Judge she was to be a wedding gift for Martha’s mercurial granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, that was apparently too much. Ona’s plans included gradually taking most of her few possessions to the home of a free black family in Philadelphia and then slipping out of the household in May 1796 while the Washingtons ate dinner.

Judge wanted ad

The Washingtons placed numerous ads promising a reward for anyone who returned Ony Judge to them. Fortunately for her, no one was able to successfully capture her and she lived out her life in New Hampshire. Maybe if they’d offered a bit more reward money, someone might have taken them up on the offer.

She retrieved her possessions and then boarded the sloop Nancy, whose destination was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making good her escape. In Portsmouth, she found work, got married, and had children with her husband, Jack Staines, a free black seaman, all while fending off slave catchers dispatched over the next several years by the angry Washington family. Meanwhile, Ona learned to read and write—something that was against the law for black people in Virginia. She also became a Christian—it turned out the Washingtons also provided no religious training or services for their enslaved workers.

While he could have engaged the legal system set up under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that he himself had signed into law to legally retrieve Judge, the intensely private Washington wished his slave catching activities to remain discrete. Unfortunately for him, they also remained ineffective, as Judge was determined never to return to enslavement. She remained classified as an escaped slave the rest of her life, as did her three children. Even though they were born in a free state and their father was a free black man, Virginia law insisted since they were the children of an enslaved mother, Ona’s three children, too, were enslaved and were the rightful property of Martha Washington’s heirs.

Ona Judge Staines died in 1848, having outlived her husband and all three of her children. But she managed to snatch a bit of immortality when she gave interviews to abolitionist publications, the only first person accounts by one of the Washingtons’ slaves ever published. She’s also been the subject of a number of books, the most recent being Never Caught.

Ann Lewis, on the other hand, was literally ripped from her family at the age of seven years when her owner, John Gay, a wealthy planter in Woodford County, Kentucky, decided to present the child as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, upon her 1842 marriage to Elijah Hopkins. The Hopkins settled with Elijah’s family just across the Ohio River in Ohio. And while Ann started out as a slave, in accord with Ohio law, she was freed the minute she set foot on Ohio real estate. Although free, she continued to live with Hopkins family, helping the couple raise their several children.

When the Hopkins family moved to Illinois in 1857, they bought land along modern Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of today’s Route 71–Route 34 intersection. There the Hopkins family farmed, raised prize-winning horses, and operated their limestone quarries which can still be seen on either side of the road.

After helping the Hopkins raise their children, Ann Lewis decided to start her own, marrying local farmhand Henry Hilliard. As a measure of the high regard in which the Hopkins family held Ann, the wedding was conducted in the Hopkins home. The couple farmed along Wolf’s Crossing Road for some years before moving to Aurora, where they raised their three children and helped establish Aurora’s Colored Baptist Church (now Main Baptist Church) on East Galena Boulevard. She maintained a lifelong attachment to the Hopkins family as well. Ann Lewis Hilliard died at the home of her son, William, on Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora at the age of 106 after an incredible, long life. She is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Two enslaved females who were given as wedding gifts, something that led to freedom for one and that led to a life of worry about losing the freedom she seized for herself and her children for the other. “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America,” wrote educator and political and women’s rights activist Fannie Barrier Williams. But Ann Lewis and Oney Judge figured out how to defy that very effort. Something to think about during this year’s Black History Month.

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Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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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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