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Local history firsts are often fleeting, coming and going rapidly

One of the interesting, and not infrequently frustrating, things about studying local history is the speed at which significant individuals made their appearances and then disappeared from the historical record.

During the settlement era this was largely due to the kind of people—pioneer farmers—who settled in our neck of the woods. A footloose lot, they often remained in one place for only a short period of time. Down in the Yorkville area, for instance, Lyman Bristol settled, gave his name to a new village and eventually a township, and then headed farther west where he was killed in a wagon accident in California.

William and Rebecca Pearce Wilson settled at the busy modern intersection of Routes 34 and 25 in Oswego in 1833, becoming the village’s first residents.

Meanwhile in 1834, one of Rebecca’s brothers, Elijah Pearce, settled with his wife and children at today’s Montgomery with his son-in-law’s family where Pearce built and operated a stagecoach inn on the east bank of the Fox River.

On page 270 of the 1878 history of Kane County, The Past and Present of Kane County, Illinois, the author claims of Pearce that “for years he kept entertainment for man and beast” at his one-room log cabin inn on the banks of the Fox River.

But by “years” here, the author means two years. Because in 1836, the families of Elijah Pearce and William Wilson moved farther west in what would become Kendall County to a claim on Big Rock Creek near modern Plano, where the two men built a sawmill. And then, just a few years later, they sold the sawmill and moved their families out of Illinois altogether, settling in Jasper County, Missouri before moving even farther west to Kansas.

Levi F. Arnold, who with Lewis B. Judson mapped out the original village of Oswego in 1835 was also instrumental in Plainfield’s history—he was the first postmaster of both villages. He, too, appears and then quickly disappears from local history, but not by choice. Arnold died in 1844 in the same unrecorded epidemic that claimed his 2 year-old daughter, Josephine.

1902 abt Downtown look north

Main Street, Oswego, looking north about 1902. The building with the flagpole at right is the Star Roller Skating Rink. The Shoger-Park Building is at left center. (Little White School Museum collection)

This quick entrance and exit of folks who made important contributions to Oswego didn’t end with the settlement era, either, but continued right up through the 20th Century. A really good example of this phenomenon is A.P. Werve, who owned Oswego’s first automobile.

Anthony Peter Werve (pronounced WERE-vie) was born April 3, 1870 in Kenosha, Wis. He married Anna Margrete Christine Alsted on Oct. 4, 1893 in Kenosha, and the couple had two children.

A.P. was trained as a jeweler, but he also had a fascination for the new craze of automobiles and the internal combustion engines that powered them.

In 1899, Werve decided to move his family to Oswego where there was an open opportunity for a jeweler, since the community didn’t have one. On Sept. 6, 1899, the “Oswego” news column in the Kendall County Record reported that “A.P. Werve of Kenosha, Wisconsin, has opened a jeweler’s shop in the south room of the Shoger block.” The Shoger Block was a two storefront commercial block at the southeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. It was eventually torn down to built the Oswego Tavern—now the Oswego Inn.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

The Shoger-Parke Building has been used for many purposes including the first Zentmyer Ford Garage in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

According to his business’s advertising, he dealt in watches, jewelry and musical instruments. He also gradually branched out in business. In the fall of 1901, he opened a feed mill in a frame addition at the rear of the limestone Shoger-Parke building kitty-corner across the street—better known today as the location of the former Jacqueline Shop, today’s Bella-gia Boutique and The Prom Shoppe. Within a few months, Werve moved his family to the upstairs apartment of the stone, and then in November 1901, he moved his jewelry store across the street into the same building.

There was plenty of room in the stone building where Werve’s jewelry and musical instrument business was located, and in April 1902 he was granted a license by the Oswego Village Board to install two pool tables.

1904 abt first Oswego auto

A.P. Werve’s friction-drive auto, that he built in 1903. Taking a spin in the spring of 1904 are (L-R) Anna and Hattie Werve, Clarence Smith, Werve, and John Varner. (Little White School Museum collection)

But along with engaging in several kinds of businesses, Werve was also pursuing his automotive hobby. And in the spring of 1903 he unveiled the thing for which he became famous in Oswego history. As the Record’s “Oswego” news column reported on Oct. 28, 1903: “It should have been mentioned heretofore that Oswego has its first automobile. A.P Werve bought some of the parts, the rest he made himself and he has it now in successful running order.”

We should be ignorant of what Werve’s home-built auto looked like had not one of his tinkering buddies, Irvin Haines not snapped a photo of it while the Werve family took it out for a spin. Werve reportedly repurposed a used an inboard boat engine to drive the car, with power transmitted to the rear wheels via a friction pulley.

In Haines’ photo, Anthony Werve is at the wheel with his wife riding in back with their oldest daughter, Nettie. Also along for the ride were fellow auto enthusiasts Clarence Smith, riding in back with Mrs. Werve and Nettie, and John Varner in front with A.P. Both Smith and Varner were, at one time or another, employed as steam engineers to run Oswego’s water pumping operation. In addition, Varner was a skilled cyclist on the high-wheel bicycles of the era, while Smith enjoyed working on engines and, eventually, other Oswego autos.

1905 abt Clarence Smith

Clarence Smith tinkers with an auto engine about 1905. Note the chassis on sawhorses behind Smith. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although A.P. Werve was celebrated for a significant Oswego first, he didn’t hang around very long to enjoy his fame as a local hero. In January 1904, he continued expanding his business by installing Oswego’s second bowling alley, also in the Shoger-Parke Building. Bowling had come to Oswego just weeks earlier with an alley being installed in the old Star Roller Skating Rink Building to capitalize on the latest community sports craze. As the Record reported on Dec. 23, 1903, “Oswego has been struck with a streak of unusual enterprises. The bank will soon go into operation and about the same time another new institution, a bowling alley. At the one where we can get money and at the other where we can spend it.”

Werve’s bowling alley, installed by Lou Young, Lew Inman, Irvin Haines, and Art Roswell, opened at the end of January, but even then, he was apparently looking to change professions and get into something where he could practice his automotive hobby—and get paid for it.

On April 13, 1904, the Record’s “Oswego” column reported that “A.P. Werve, our jeweler, is getting ready to move to Benton Harbor, Mich., where he has accepted a good position with the Searchlight Manufacturing Company.”

Searchlight manufactured internal combustion engines for early autos, along with other mechanical products, and Werve apparently found a good fit there. Unfortunately, Searchlight apparently got caught up in the financial Panic of 1907 and its operations were thrown into confusion, although it continued operating at Benton Harbor for a few years afterwards. According to a 1907 Benton Harbor city directory, Werve had gone back to his core business of owning a jewelry store.

Then, the Werve family, like so many others, headed west in search of new opportunities, and by 1914 were living in southern California where he ran a garage.

Werve also maintained his fascination with automobiles. In 1914, the Werve family came back to the Midwest to visit friends and family in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, stopping for a few days in Oswego. The Record reported on July 29, 1914 that “Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Werve and children left Monday morning for Los Angeles, Cal., expecting to make the trip by auto taking from four to six weeks.” A hardy and adventuresome crew indeed during an era when there really were few, if any, marked interstate roads.

The couple remained in southern California for the rest of their lives. After a career as a jeweler, business owner, Oswego automobile pioneer, mechanic, and rancher, A.P. Werve died on Aug. 8, 1951 in Imperial County, California. He and his wife are buried in Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, California with nothing to mark his brief, though significant, claim to fame here in northern Illinois.

Want to do your part to preserve and protect the history of the Oswego, Illinois area at the Little White School Museum? Join the Oswegoland Heritage Association–dues are just $20 per person per year. Send your check made out to the Oswegoland Heritage Association to Box 23, Oswego, IL 60543.

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When it was summer and the livin’ was easy…

Summer has not yet quite officially arrived in the Fox Valley, although summer vacation has. Family vacations are on the horizon, and the newly out-of-school kids are able to ignore the fact they’ll have to get back in the academic harness in a few months. Instead, they’re settling into whatever summer routines their parents have mapped out for them.

These days, in fact, kids are heavily scheduled and deeply involved in a variety of organized sports, from the littlest tots to teens. Practice for upcoming Youth Tackle Football League games is starting along with soccer practice, tennis practice, and a variety of other sports leagues that would have astonished us here in Oswego 60 years ago. And that doesn’t even count the swimming lessons, craft activities, reading programs, and all the other things parents get their kids involved in.

1958 Fishing expedition

Oswego kids line up at the Red Brick School for a 1958 fishing derby at Hafenrichter’s Pond sponsored by the Oswego Park District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in the late 1950s when I was just a kid, the group I traveled with loathed structured activities of any kind, which was probably a good thing, since there weren’t too many of those kinds of things to do anyway. We did have Little League baseball, provided by the park district, but I lost my enthusiasm for that when John Seidelman threw a high hard one inside and managed to hit me right in the ear hole of my batting helmet one day. After picking myself up off the batter’s box, I found my enthusiasm for baseball had disappeared. In fact, I haven’t liked baseball all that much ever since.

We also had the summer youth programs of the Oswego (later Oswegoland) Park District overseen by Ford Lippold up at the Little White School and the Red Brick School, but we weren’t much interested in them, either.

Spanky & the Gang

The Little Rascals, with Spanky third from the left.

Mostly, we hung around in a group and played along Waubonsie Creek and the Fox River. Our games were greatly influenced by two books, Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington and The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, not to mention “The Little Rascals” movie short comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Penrod and Sam concerned two boys growing up in the early years of the 20th Century. Their adventures enthralled us, and we tried to pattern ourselves after Penrod, Sam, and their friends. The Story of a Bad Boy, on the other hand, was Aldrich’s semi-autobiography about a boy growing up in a small New England town in the 1850s who wasn’t a bad boy at all. He did get into some interesting scrapes, though. And he and his friends had the neatest snowball war any of us had ever heard about. The “Our Gang” comedies, of course, involved Alfalfa, Spanky, the beautiful Darla, and their gang of friends who had the neatest adventures and cobbled together the most wonderful inventions ever.

Daguerrotype of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Daguerrotype in the Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Upon rereading as an adult, however, Penrod and Sam, published in 1916, is startling for its casual racism. During the 1950s growing up here along the banks of the Fox River, though, none of us knew what racism was. I recall being extremely confused when a friend who had traveled through the South reported there were separate bathrooms and water fountains just for black people, and it made us all wonder how come black people couldn’t drink out of everybody else’s water fountains. After all, we’d been going to school with black kids for years and they didn’t have to do that in Oswego. It really puzzled us. Even with its early 20th Century racism, however, Penrod and Sam is still an extremely funny book and we all read it several times.

The Story of a Bad Boy is still one of my very favorite books, although I can’t seem to persuade anyone else of its worth. And there, too, there was disappointment when I got old enough to learn more about Aldrich. Despite his charming book, Aldrich turned out to be an adherent of preventing immigration, particularly that of Catholics. But it’s possible to forget Aldrich’s foibles when submerged in his marvelous tale about his youthful hero, Tom Bailey, and his friends growing up in a small 19th Century seacoast town.

1957 Pinochle Bunch kids

Nothing like cold watermelon on a hot summer day. The author, in his favorite cap won at a carnival in Oswego, is third from left.

“The Little Rascals” movies, that we watched as part of the numerous local kids’ TV shows of the 1950s have worn extremely well. Even so, every once in a while, some Hollywood genius decides to try reviving them with always disastrous results. It’s really impossible to improve on or recreate a true classic.

After having studied up using the right books and absorbed as much “Rascals” lore as we could, we ventured forth each summer to have fun—and have fun we did. The woods near my home became our special preserve. We built bicycle trails throughout the stand of young soft maples woods, and built a series of three villages located on those trails. We maintained the houses and trails in the woods for about two years, I think, before we were forced to move elsewhere by unfriendly neighbors.

1962 Paul & fish

We spent a LOT of time on the Fox River. Above, my fishing buddy Paul holds up a big carp he caught. We still go fishing together twice a year.

Shortly before the move, we obtained our first river boats, and so became even more independent. My boat was purchased from a young man in Aurora, as I recall. It resembled nothing so much as the kind of large wooden box that contractors mix cement in.

It was very heavy, made of one inch lumber throughout, with a three-quarter inch plywood bottom. It even had a keel, for what reason I was never able to determine. About all the keel did was to catch on the rocks on the bottom of the shallow Fox River.

Granted, my boat was very heavy, but that meant it was also very stable. Three of my friends could stand on the gunwale at one time, and the boat would come nowhere near to tipping over.

The nice thing about the Fox, of course, was that it was so shallow that it was difficult—though not impossible—to find a place deep enough in which to drown. There were holes, of course, but we learned where nearly all of them were and stayed away from them.

After it became too much of a hassle to keep our towns on the mainland, we moved to a large island in the river where we built similar houses and forts.

The move to the island occasioned the need for a communications system from the island to the mainland, and from there to our tree house. It was determined that tying letters to arrows and shooting them from the island to the mainland and from there to the tree house was the answer to our problems. On the first test of our new communications system, the fellow standing in the field on the mainland came within six inches of getting the arrow with the message through his foot, but he gamely picked up the arrow and message and shot it up to the base of the tree in which we had our fort. The plan was then to attach the note to a hunting arrow and shoot it up into the bottom of the trapdoor of the tree house. As he shot the arrow, however, the fellow on the ground yelled, “Here it comes!” Not quite hearing him, another of my compatriots opened up the trap door to ask what he said, just as the hunting arrow whistled past his ear. After narrowly averting disaster twice during the first message test, we decided to scrap the system for something a little less hazardous.

Image result for Elmer the Elephant chicago tv

Elmer the Elephant: Gone but not forgotten.

I’m not sure what kids read these days, but I suspect that neither Penrod and Sam nor The Story of a Bad Boy are among the books parents will allow in the house. And, sadly, “The Little Rascals” comedies are not broadcast daily on the kind of live-action kids’ shows we tuned into back in the day like “Here’s Geraldine” or “Elmer the Elephant.”

I suppose, with the number of kids we have today, all these modern structured activities might really be necessary. I’m glad I never had to cope with them, though. For me, it was much more fun spending the summer with Penrod, Spanky, and Tom Bailey.

 

 

 

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

On June 1, 1898, the Kendall County Record published an anonymous letter to the editor from an Oswego resident noting how the commemoration of Decoration Day—today’s Memorial Day—had changed over the years.

The commemoration started out with the girls of the community going to the cemetery to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers. Gradually, it morphed into almost a celebration of the military, something that became really evident during 1898, when this letter to the editor appeared in the Record.

As we finish commemorating another Memorial Day, I thought it might be interesting and instructive to reprint that anonymous letter to give a slightly different take on this annual holiday:

************************************************************************************

AN OSWEGO VIEW

Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Former Civil War soldier George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade through the downtown business district about 1898. (Little White School Museum collection)

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

1957 OHS Band at Bartlett cr

Legendary Oswego music educator Reeve R. Thompson marches down Main Street on the way to the Oswego Township Cemetery with the OHS Band on Memorial Day 1957. (Little White School Museum collection)

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal, preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

 

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Filed under Civil War, History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.

In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.

While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.

Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.

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George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.

In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.

Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”

The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.

By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.

Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”

On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”

From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.

Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.

Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.

The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.

At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.

When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

The huge impact of 19th Century roads on area towns is largely unappreciated

Downtown redevelopment frenzies seem to come and go with some regularity. From Montgomery to Yorkville to Plano and Sandwich, towns around this area keep looking for ways to revitalize their historic downtown business districts.

For instance,  back in 2005, Oswego wrapped up a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project. Montgomery got into the act, too, with the end result being their wonderful new village hall, historic Settler’s Cottage, and extensive cleanup. Most recent was Yorkville’s (so far successful) attempt to preserve its downtown in the face of the widening Ill. Route 47 to five lanes right smack through the middle of their historic Bridge Street business district.

2001 Aug 23 N from Van Buren.jpg

Oswego’s downtown business district (looking north from Van Buren Street) under construction in August 2001. The project wasn’t completed for a few more years. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each of these communities faces its own challenges, even though each town’s business district is so much different than the others.

Talk to an economic historian about why communities develop the way they do, and you’ll likely get an eye-glazing lecture on, among other things, modern interpretations of S.H. Goodin’s central place theory and the definition of hinterlands. Those things certainly have had great effects on municipal development. But here in the Fox Valley area, the single most important aspect of why and how our communities evolved the way they have seems to have had more to do with transportation—in particular, transportation routes that existed in the middle two-thirds of the 19th Century—than other factors.

The results are interesting to contemplate. Plainfield, for instance, has a large downtown business district situated along what used to be U.S. Route 30, which ran through the middle of its business district until it was rerouted around downtown some years ago. Oswego’s business district is bordered on two sides by busy U.S. Route 34, the main, and often traffic-snarled, route through the village. Montgomery’s tiny downtown is flanked to the west by Ill. Route 31 and to the east by the Fox River. Yorkville, in a situation somewhat similar to Plainfield, has its respectable downtown business district bisected by busy Ill. Route 47.

Meanwhile, the tiny Kendall County community of Plattville has what once passed for a business district that meandered along Plattville Road, which runs through the middle of the village. Likewise, the hamlet of Little Rock in northwestern Kendall County also rambles along the road through town, in this case the old state stagecoach road to Galena. Plano’s downtown was designed to be bisected by the main line of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad while Sandwich’s Main Street (not to be confused with the street the business district is on) is perpendicular to the main line tracks, which inconveniently arrived after the village was platted.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Although Montgomery has a Main Street running parallel to the Fox River, it’s main business district became oriented to Mill Street and its bridge across the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

In each case, transportation routes arguably had the largest influence on how and where these business districts were located and eventually laid out, while each community’s location in the hinterland of a nearby larger community had an important impact on the size and makeup of each downtown.

Although Montgomery has a Main Street, the business district is located to its east and stretches along Mill, River, and Webster streets, similar to the meandering layouts of the hamlets of Little Rock and Plattville. Oswego’s main business district, a three block section of Main Street, is located parallel to the Fox River while Yorkville’s, which is about the same size, is sited perpendicular to the river. How did it all happen?

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, actually laid the village out with a Main Street that, like Oswego’s, ran parallel to the Fox River. But economic realities changed Gray’s vision so that businesses gradually grew up along the streets that led to the modern bridge (located north of Gray’s original 1830s bridge) across the river. Thus the gentle S route formed by Mill, River, and Webster streets became the de facto business district.

Meanwhile, Oswego’s founders laid out Main Street along the economically vital Chicago to Ottawa Road and immediately adjacent to the Joliet to Dixon road that crossed the river at Oswego on its way west across the prairie. Probably because the Ottawa Road was the more economically important connection in the 1830s and 1840s, the business district remained strong along Main Street. By the time the first bridge was built across the river in 1848, Main Street was established as the business district.

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

Yorkville’s Bridge Street, shown here looking north in 1893, became the town’s main thoroughfare, even though it ran perpendicular to the community’s two Main Streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in Yorkville, a different dynamic was at work. The Fox River Road, the stagecoach and mail route from Ottawa to Geneva, did not pass through Yorkville. Instead it ran through neighboring Bristol on the north bank of the Fox River. And the post road from Ottawa to Chicago (now Ill. Route 71) bypassed Yorkville to the south. Yorkville had been named the county seat by a state commission in 1841, but voters decided to move it to Oswego in 1845. As a result, Yorkville didn’t get a post office until 1864 when the county seat moved back from Oswego (Bristol’s post office had been established in 1839). Because the post office used by Yorkville residents was on the north side of the river in Bristol, along with connection to the busy Fox River Trail, and the location of the Chicago to Ottawa Road was well south of the river, Yorkville’s business district grew in a north-south orientation. The main route through the business district is called Bridge Street, denoting the importance of the river crossing to the city’s economy. And that’s despite two Main Streets in Yorkville, one on either side of the river. one in the old village of Bristol running parallel to the river on the north side and one in Yorkville proper, running perpendicular to the river on the south side.

Just as their orientation and layout is different, so too are the sizes of the three communities’ business districts, which grow in size the farther they are from Aurora.

Plainfield, on the other hand, is far enough from either Aurora or Joliet to have developed its own large independent business district, similar to Naperville’s. Plano and Sandwich, both fairly typical railroad towns, were mercantile centers in their own right early on with downtowns fueled by the passenger and economic traffic brought by rail lines. Compare them to Little Rock and Plattville, hamlets that owed their existence to the roads to Galena and Ottawa, respectively. The two villages declined precipitately when the rail lines extending west of Chicago missed both.

Today, 170 years after most of Kendall County’s town-founding took place, transportation is still shaping the towns we live in—for better or (more often) for worse. And as change occurs, it might be useful to recall that this isn’t the first time such major transformations and dislocations took place. Nor, I think it’s safe to say, will it be the last.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Oswegoland’s Methodist roots run deep

Our little corner of Illinois has deep Methodist roots.

One of the first permanent settlers north of Peoria was Jesse Walker, a Methodist preacher who established a mission along the Fox River north of its mouth on the Illinois River in 1825.

Walker established the Fox River Mission in Section 15 of modern Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E) on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church. When the Illinois General Assembly approved allowing counties to establish the township form of government in 1850 and names were chosen for each, Mission was named after Walker’s enterprise a quarter of a century earlier.

The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming; educate Native American children at a mission-run school; and, of course, to spread the Gospel according to Methodist teachings.

Walker, Jesse

Jesse Walker

In his 1825 report, Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in Illinois that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission campus also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”

Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, arrived in the Fox Valley that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.

Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds, since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.

But the mission turned out to be neither a financial nor a spiritual success. American Indians were always difficult to convert to Christianity, at least one source reporting that Native Americans thought the concept of original sin ridiculous. And while the government had pledged to subsidize the new mission—it would have been a relatively cheap way to provide services to local tribes required under various treaties—Walker and the Methodists learned the hard lesson that it’s best to get cash in hand when the government makes promises and not rely on anyone’s good will or intentions. The Methodists, in fact, never did get the money they were promised.

By 1829, when Galena merchant James Stoddard sent a small wagon train loaded with lead to Chicago from the mines located around the bustling northwestern Illinois town (the train crossed the Fox River at the mission, drawn by the promise of blacksmithing services there) they found the mission abandoned.

While Walker and the other Methodists in the Rock River Conference gave the mission up as a bad idea, they continued to spread the Gospel according to Methodism to the new settlers beginning to flood into northern Illinois. Another Methodist preacher, Stephen R. Beggs, settled at James Walker’s growing hamlet on the DuPage River.

In 1832, when the Black Hawk War broke out, settlers up and down the Fox River Valley fled their homes for safety. Those in the southern part of today’s Kendall County line ran south to Ottawa, where a fort was under construction. Those in the northern part of the modern county’s boundaries first fled to Walker’s Grove where they congregated at Beggs’ farm. The panicked pioneers tore down some of Beggs’ sheds and fences and built a rude fort designed to scare off any Indian attackers. And, indeed, it was pretty much a bluff, because as Beggs later recalled, while there were some 125 frightened refugees there, they only had four guns among them, “some of which,” he added, didn’t work.

The war proved to be brief and the next year, 1833, was dubbed “The Year of the Early Spring.” The prairie dried out and the grass greened up early, allowing a pent-up wave of settlers to begin flooding into the Fox Valley.

Pearce, Daniel & Sarah

Daniel and Sarah Pearce (Little White School Museum collection)

Many of those early pioneers were Methodists, and Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs lost no time in establishing Methodist meetings at several settlers’ cabins up and down the Fox Valley, the two of them servicing their respective circuits. Beggs, who established the first Methodist class at Walker’s Grove in 1829, was receptive when Daniel and Sarah Pearce and their extended family, who had settled at what eventually became Oswego in 1833, asked for a class to be established there. That year, the Oswego Class joined new classes at Ottawa and Princeton. By 1835, when the Rev. William Royal was the circuit rider, his route took him from Oswego northwest to Belvedere, south to Princeton, and back through Mission Township in LaSalle County as he visited the 19 charges in his circuit.

1901 LWS as ME Church

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, now the Little White School Museum, as it looked in 1901. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Methodist class meeting at the Pearce cabin eventually became a full-fledged congregation of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The congregation began building a church in Oswego in 1848, finishing the building in 1850. It is today known as the Little White School Museum, and still stands on the site where those early Methodists erected it. The church was finally considered free of debt and eligible to be dedicated in 1854. The congregation met in the building until 1913,when they decided to merge with the German Methodists a few blocks away.

It was during the mid-19th Century that another group of Methodist farmers, this time from Germany called Albright Methodists, began settling on the prairie east of Oswego. They built their first church about 1850 on a low-lying parcel just west of modern Roth Road. The church and cemetery were moved east to Roth Road in 1861. Eventually, this congregation became known as the Prairie Church.

1871 Prairie Church exterior 1908

The Albright Methodists’ second church on the Oswego Prairie built in 1871. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, a group of Albright Methodists, members of the Prairie Church, were beginning to wish they had their own church in town so they didn’t have to drive three miles out in the country every Sunday. In 1860, the group began meeting in a stone building at the corner of Washington and Madison called the French Castle.

The French Castle, built as a large home by some of Oswego’s early French-Canadian residents (thus the name) at Washington and Madison streets, had been used by the village’s Presbyterians until 1857 when they moved to their new church at Madison and Douglas streets.

The vacant building proved a suitable home for the new congregation.

1914 Federated Church

The German Evangelical Church built by the Oswego’s Albright Methodists in 1894 on the site of the old “French Castle.” (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego congregation continued to grow, as more Germans immigrated to the area, along with Pennsylvania Germans, both drawn by the large population of German-speakers already in the area. Sermons and funerals at the new church were preached in German while the Methodist-Episcopal Church served the village’s English language population.

The town Methodists eventually built a new church in 1894 after tearing the old building down. So that year, Oswego boasted two Methodist churches, one German and one American, with services in English in the Methodist-Episcopal Church and services in German at the Albright Methodists’ new building.

1910 Oswego Prairie Church look NE

The German Methodists’ new Prairie Church was built in 1910, replacing the old 1871 building. (Little White School Museum collection)

The German Methodists hired a single preacher who ministered to a circuit of four congregations that included the one in town, the Prairie Church, and the Lantz Church and the Copenhagen Church, both just over the line in Will County’s Wheatland Township. The four-church circuit was served by a single pastor, based in Oswego. The Copenhagen and Lantz congregations eventually merged, creating a new congregation called the Salem Church.

In 1870, Oswego had boasted Baptist, Lutheran, German Evangelical, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist-Episcopal churches. But as the years passed, some of those congregations gradually dissolved. The Baptists were first to go, and their congregants spread themselves among the remaining churches. The Lutherans were next, with most of them joining their fellow

2004 Church of the Good Shepherd

Today’s Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

German-speakers at the Evangelical Church. The congregation at the Methodist-Episcopal Church—now the Little White School Museum—dissolved in 1913, and its members mostly transferred to the Evangelical Church. Possibly prompted by that union, services started being held in English in January of that year.

Finally, when the Congregational Church was destroyed by fire in 1920, its congregation also decided to join the Evangelical Church’s congregation, and a new church community, the Federated Church, was created. It’s a name by which some long-time Oswego residents still call the church.

2015 9-3 LWSM w sign

Formerly the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, the Little White School Museum is now the repository for Oswego area history and heritage. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Federated Church became affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1947. It changed its name to the Church of the Good Shepherd EUB in 1957 in honor of the church building’s iconic stained glass window that faces Washington Street. In 1968, the EUB and Methodists merged, and the Church of the Good Shepherd added “United Methodist” to its name.

Today, the landmark Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is the direct descendant of those pioneer Methodists who gathered in Daniel Pearce’s log cabin in 1833 to establish the first Oswego Methodist Class and went on to build the historic Little White School Museum, and to play such an important part in Oswego area history.

 

 

 

 

 

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Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

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Filed under Civil War, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History