Tag Archives: Ice Harvest

Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.



Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Everyone thought these local landmarks would be around forever, but they’ve completely disappeared…

One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.

That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.

For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.

Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.

The Parker Mills about 1900 in a photo taken by Irvin Haines. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the foreground on the east bank of the Fox River. The gristmill is on the west bank with the miller’s house behind it and to the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.

Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.

Turbines like this one on display in Montgomery ran most of the mills on the Fox River.

The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.

Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.

Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.

A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice houses above the Parker Mill dam at Oswego. The operation produced hundreds of rail cars of ice annually. (Little White School Museum collection)

What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.

Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.

There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.

The Oswego Stockyards. The Waubonsie Creek bridge on Adams Street is visible upper center, and the old feed mill, later a home on the north side of the creek is visible just to the right–upstream–from the bridge. (Little White School Museum collection)

The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.

Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.

Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.

The Fox River Butter Company’s creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society photo)

The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”

McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.

Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.

The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.

A southbound interurban trolley crosses the 300-foot trestle taking it over the CB&Q tracks in Oswego around 1910. (Little White School Museum collection)

The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.

The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.

Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

Throwing off the surly bonds of a Midwestern summer’s heat

Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.

Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.

Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.

Summer heat wasn’t a problem for Kendall County’s ancient people–keeping from freezing during that era’s long Ice Age winters was.

But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.

Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.

Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.

That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.

So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.

The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.

My father’s boyhood home just south of Emporia, Kansas featured a porch that wrapped around the whole house, cooling all four walls.

The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.

When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”

Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.

This photo of a quartette of young ladies swimming was taken by Irvin Haines on the Fox River just above the old Parker mills and dam around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.

And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”

Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.

On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.

Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.

A huge ice harvesting operation was located just above the Oswego dam until the ice houses burned down in the 1890s. Similar businesses were located at dam sites up and down the Fox River Valley. (Little White School Museum collection)

Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”

Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”

Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”

Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “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 saloonkeeper, 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.”

Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.

Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.

Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.

Roy Roalson (left) gives a customer a trim in his barbershop on South Main Street in Oswego in 1936. They did both men’s and women’s hair in Roy’s shop. The shop’s Frididaire air conditioner is just out of the frame to the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”

Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.

By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.

These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Crime, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, Science stuff, Technology

A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 1…

Was headed northbound up Ill. Route 25 to Aurora Saturday to pick up my wife and grandchildren at the Aurora METRA station when it struck me I’d driven that route thousands of times over the last 50-plus years since I got my driver’s license. And I’d traveled it thousands of times before that as a passenger with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

With a few brief spans equaling only a couple years, I’ve lived on North Adams Street between the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch tracks and the Fox River since December 1954. Route 25 runs north along the brow of the Fox Valley ridge behind our house before dipping down to cross under the railroad tracks a quarter mile north. From there, it follows the banks of the river right into Aurora.

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It's still one of the area's most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It’s still one of the area’s most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s a beautiful stretch of road year round. In the spring, flowering trees and shrubs brighten and soften the landscape; in the summer the river draws wildlife of all kinds plus thousands of folks, young and old alike, who pedal, walk, and run the bicycle trail between the river and the highway championed all those years ago by my friends, Bert Gray and Dick Young. In autumn the trees blaze with reds, golds, and greens; and in winter, the river’s frozen beauty is enhanced by hoarfrost-clad leafless trees and shrubs.

It’s a historic drive, too. Having lived along the route most all my life, the stories constantly pop up on the drive north. Keep on reading for the first bunch of tales as I drove north on my personal Memory Lane:

Pulling out of our driveway, we take North Adams north past the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory site immortalized on the blog’s front page photo, and then make the curve onto Second Street past the vacant lot once the site of the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses up the hill to the stop sign at Route 25. When we were kids, John Morley and I lugged buckets of water up to the top of that hill on cold winter days to ice the road down for sledding. Starting at the top, and providing we made the right-angled curve to the left at the bottom, we could sometimes coast all the way to my folks’ (now my) driveway.

What with all the traffic these days, it’s more of a challenge to pull onto Route 25 but we make the left turn, northbound, past the now-vanished rail siding that served the ice company, loading out more than 100 cars some months with ice that kept Armour’s and Swift’s refrigerator cars cold enough to ship beef and hog carcasses to Eastern markets. The family of a childhood friend, Roy Burton, lived in the old switchman’s shack. Then it’s into the gentle “S” curve, under the tracks. Back in the day, the rail crossing was a grade, but it was dangerous, and so the bridge was added, first with a pylon in the center of the roadway that led to numerous accidents before the current bridge was built.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines' Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines’ Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Route 25 passes the old driveway to the Haines house that crosses Cedar Creek on a dry-laid stone bridge that once carried stagecoach traffic north on what was then called the East River Road. And then past Violet Patch Park, which has always been called the Violet Patch because they were once so prolific there. Irvin Haines, a long-deceased cousin, operated the Violet Grove Campground there in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other side of the road are the abandoned gravel pits where we spent so much time as kids, eating wild strawberries that once covered the spoil heaps in June, hunting in November, and generally fooling around the rest of the year. The old pit is nowadays home to the Oswego Township Highway Department garage, as well as to a branch of the bicycle trail that connects to Boulder Hill from the Violet Patch.

We didn’t know then that the old pit also covered the semi-final resting place of one John “Red” Hamilton, the unlucky Canada-born associate of John Dillinger. Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the 1930s media, Hamilton had two fingers shot off in various Dillinger Gang jobs. In fact, if someone in the gang was to be wounded, it was Hamilton. His final wound, a rifle bullet fired by a security guard following a payroll heist, put an end to Hamilton’s career. Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson and a couple others took the wounded Hamilton to an apartment in Aurora where he died. They looked for a handy place to bury him, and chose a rise along a fence line just uphill from Route 25. The Feds didn’t find out where his body was for more than a year, after which the FBI dug him up and confirmed his identity at the Croushorn Funeral Home in Oswego. Hamilton’s sister paid for his burial in the Oswego Cemetery. The young, novice mortician tapped to work with Hamilton’s body in Oswego subsequently decided he’d better look for a new line of work.

Farther north was the home of my sometime classmate Tom Wilson, perched up on the ridge overlooking the Fox River. Then it’s past the home of the late Bob Watson, who was A Character. A former CB&Q conductor, Bob was a prolific jokester and contrarian who spent his summers at the resort his family had owned since the 1940s in northern Wisconsin. And then past the house of my one-time junior high classmate Lonnie Precup, who dropped out of Oswego to go to a Lutheran school and who became a Lutheran minister.

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The route extends under the railroad tracks one more time, as the old Fox River Branch heads across the river towards the Main Line in Montgomery, just before passing Boulder Hill, a huge, unincorporated subdivision began in the mid-1950s by developer Don L. Dise. My wife’s parents bought one of the first 100 houses there back in 1958, and early on the development was home to CB&Q executives (like my father-in-law) as well as workers and execs for the then-new Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants on the west side of the river.

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Western Electric plant, on the west bank of the river across from Boulder Hill, occupied a former wallpaper factory and World War II munitions factory. It was located on the old Riverview Park site, whose name was later changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with Chicago’s huge Riverview Park. From 1900 to the mid 1920s, Fox River Park hosted thousands of visitors weekly who enjoyed a roller coaster, merry widow swing, shoot the chutes ride into the river, boat rentals, dances and more. Annual Chautauquas drew thousands more to hear presentations by revivalists and nationally-known speakers. And the ball diamond featured professional players, including one whose name was Casey Stengel.

Along this stretch of the road, it’s always wise to keep a sharp lookout for folks crossing the highway to get to the biking and hiking trail, and I’m also pausing as I let the car in front of me turn into Boulder Hill.

The drive up Memory Lane continues below…






Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

The saga of Capt. Henry Detweiller…

We drove down to Peoria this past weekend to help a friend celebrate his 70th birthday. Which doesn’t seem old at all now that both of the inhabitants of the Matile Manse are getting close to the same milestone.

Lots of folks who go to Peoria wonder what’s playing there. Me, I can’t help but think about Capt. Henry Detweiller.

Detweiler is a human historical link between  the old Frink and Walker stagecoach line, naval operations on the Mississippi during the Civil War, and the annual Illinois State Cross Country meet that so many Kendall County student-athletes have attended during the last several decades, which is held at the Peoria park named in his honor.

Capt. Henry Detweiller (1825-1903) was one of Illinois’ pioneer rivermen, learning the trade of riverboat pilot and serving with everyone from stagecoach company operators to the U.S. Navy’s brownwater fleet during the Civil War. He was the namesake for Peoria’s Detweiller Park.

Capt. Henry Detweiller (1825-1903) was one of Illinois’ pioneer rivermen, learning the trade of riverboat pilot and serving with everyone from stagecoach company operators to the U.S. Navy’s brownwater fleet during the Civil War. He was the namesake for Peoria’s Detweiller Park.

Henry Detweiller was an almost-prototypical resident of Illinois during the pioneer era. He grew up fast and in doing so rubbed elbows with some of the most famous of the state’s residents, eventually becoming a respected Peoria riverboat pilot, businessman, and politician.

Like most Illinois residents of the 1830s, Henry Detweiller was born somewhere else—in his case at Lorraine, France on June 19, 1825. His father, a Bavarian transplant, was a farmer, miller, and freight hauler. He married Catherine Schertz of France, and the couple had several children. But the senior Detweiller suffered reverses during the Napoleonic wars and was financially strapped when he died in 1832.

Five years later, Catherine Detweiller and her four children—three daughters and young Henry—immigrated to the United States. After landing in New York, they traveled west to Peoria where Catherine’s older son owned an inn. Henry worked for his brother and, off and on, went to school. But it was the stories the riverboat captains and pilots told when they stayed at the inn that most interested him. Henry badly wanted to become a riverboat crewman, but, as he wrote years later: “My brother was strongly opposed to let me go on the River, and forbid all the Captains to let me go on their boats.”

Deciding on direct action, he stowed aboard the steamer Motto as she was leaving the Peoria riverfront. Gawking at the steamboat’s engine, young Henry was spied by Capt. Grant, the boat’s master, who said, “Hallo youngster, what in the Devil are you doing here, and who told you to serve on this boat?” After hearing the youngsters’ story, the captain agreed to let him travel to St. Louis and then back to Peoria, but no further. And Henry’s brother again strongly advised him to find steady employment ashore. Angered at his brother’s attitude, Henry left the inn to work in a Peoria shoe store.

Realizing steamboats could speed both passengers and mail during the Illinois Rivers’ three ice-free seasons, Frink purchased the small steamboat Frontier to connect with his stages at either Ottawa or Peru, depending on the depth of the river. Henry Detweiller learned the riverboat pilot’s trade aboard her. (Illustration from By Trace & Trail, Oswegoland Heritage Association, 2010)

Realizing steamboats could speed both passengers and mail during the Illinois Rivers’ three ice-free seasons, Frink & Walker purchased the small steamboat Frontier to connect with his stages at either Ottawa or Peru, depending on the depth of the river. Henry Detweiller learned the riverboat pilot’s trade aboard her. (Illustration from By Trace & Trail, Oswegoland Heritage Association, 2010)

For the next year, he waited for an opportunity to join a riverboat crew. That’s when John Frink entered the picture. By 1840, Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, were well on their way to dominating the stagecoach business in Illinois. Detweiller met Frink while working at his brother’s inn and later asked him for a job. Frink and Walker decided a passenger steamer would be a natural compliment to their stage business. During much of the year, the Illinois River was free of ice and boats could usually ascend as far as Peru, and sometimes as high as the rapids at Ottawa. Stage passengers and mail arriving from points north (including towns here in Kendall County) could transfer to a steamer for quick passage downriver to Peoria and then on to St. Louis. When the boats couldn’t run due to low water or ice, stagecoaches ran the entire distance.

Frink and Walker bought the small steamer Frontier, whose shallow draft allowed her to run as a daily mail packet between Peru (and sometimes Ottawa) and Peoria. Most steamers didn’t sail until their passenger list and cargo deck were full, but packets like the Frontier sailed on regular schedules, full or not. On April 13, 1840, Frink agreed to hire Detweiller as a pilot trainee to learn the river from experienced pilot Milton Hasbrouck. His pay was $10 a month—a nice raise from the $6 a month he was making ashore clerking at Samuel Voris & Company.

Riverboat pilots, as Mark Twain noted, were the kings of river culture, memorizing the locations of shallows, bars, sunken islands, and snags to safely steer their fragile boats on the nation’s rivers. Henry was soon appointed second pilot, but then in 1842, disaster struck. In the early morning hours of Sept. 2, the steamer Panama ran into and sank the smaller Frontier just above the tiny village of Little Detroit at the extreme north end of Lake Peoria. Quick action by Hasbrouck ran the Frontier ashore before she could sink in the river, saving all of the 40 or so passengers aboard as the crew of the Panama helped carry everyone to safety.

On Sept. 2, 1842, the Frontier was steaming up through the narrows of Peoria Lake when the large steamer Panama suddenly swerved to avoid a sandbar and collided with the Frontier. The Panama took off passengers and crew. After salvaging what they could the crew allowed the Frontier to sink.

On Sept. 2, 1842, the Frontier was steaming up through the narrows of Peoria Lake when the large steamer Panama suddenly swerved to avoid a sandbar, colliding with the smaller steamboat. The Panama took off passengers and crew. After salvaging what they could the crew allowed the Frontier to sink.

Frink and Walker immediately built a new steamer, the Chicago, on which Detweiller again sailed as second pilot until she was withdrawn from service in 1844. That’s apparently when Detweiller left Frink and Walker to make his own way. He continued as a second pilot until 1847 when he was appointed captain of the Gov. Briggs. In 1848 and 1849 he was first pilot on a variety of boats, going on to become one of the most experienced pilots and captains on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. During the Civil War, Detweiller joined the U.S. Navy’s river fleet, where he was involved in the Vicksburg campaign and running cargo past Confederate forces down the river to New Orleans.

With the advent of railroads, river traffic waned, and Detweiller decided to retire ashore and concentrate on the ice business. Described as an “ardent Republican,” the former riverboat captain served six terms as Peoria City Treasurer, and was one of the city’s most solid citizens upon his death in 1908. And Detweiller Park? Capt. Detweiller’s last surviving son, Thomas, bought the rugged land that’s now Detweiller Park and donated it to the city as a lasting memorial to his father–and a grueling test for generations of Illinois high school athletes including dozens from here in Kendall County.


Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

When they used to warehouse winter and sell it in the summer

Keeping food from spoiling by keeping it cool has a long and storied history. But it wasn’t until home ice boxes became available that regular folks could afford refrigeration technology.

Those original ice boxes were pieces of furniture. Made, generally, of oak, they had a top compartment, lined with zinc, in which a block of ice would be placed. The cold was directed down into the cooling area by vents. As the ice melted, the cold water was likewise directed downwards to a collection tray at the bottom.

Ice was delivered to private homes and businesses by companies formed for the specific purpose.

But even before home ice boxes became all the rage, ice was being used to cool refrigerator cars hauling sides of beef and pork from the Armour and Swift packing plants in Chicago east to the markets in New York and other big cities.

By the 1870s, Gustavus Swift was doing very well in the meat business. Growing up on a New England farm, he started selling beef door to door on Cape Cod before opening his own string of butcher shops.

Looking for ways to expand his business, Swift carefully studied how beef got from the west, where it was raised, to the Eastern market. He found that virtually every steer destined for the East Coast market was shipped through Chicago. There, cattle were off-loaded so they could be fed and watered before completing their journey.

Swift figured the logical thing to do was to establish a meat packing facility in Chicago with the dressed beef shipped east. But there was a big problem with the plan in the 1870s: There was no reliable way to get dressed carcasses to the eastern market unspoiled year round. Granted, George Hammond, a Detroit meat packer and the namesake of Hammond, Ind., developed a crude ice-cooled railcar to ship his dressed pork east, but the design was inefficient and unreliable.

It's possible to get an idea of the size of the huge structures in which ice was stored looking at this photo taken of Esch Brothers & Rabe's ice houses in Oswego. Note the huge piles of sawdust ready to be used for insulation between layers of ice.

It’s possible to get an idea of the size of the huge structures in which ice was stored looking at this photo taken of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses in Oswego. Note the huge piles of sawdust ready to be used for insulation between layers of ice.

Swift, however, was convinced he could make money packing and shipping beef from Chicago.

He started by shipping his first consignments of dressed beef by rail during the winter, with the railcar doors left open to allow cold air to circulate among the sides of beef. But ever looking ahead, at the same time he commissioned engineer Andrew Chase to design the first successful refrigerated railcar.

Chase designed his new car with a compartment at either end to hold 500 pounds of ice and 100 pounds of salt each. Vents directed the air flow through the ice compartments and into the insulated interior as the train moved, using a series of vents. Roof vents released warmer air, which was forced to the ceiling by the colder, denser air below.

Using innovative loading of the dressed beef, the cold air could circulate, but the sides were unable to shift as the train traveled east. In addition, Swift established icing stations on the rail route so that the cars’ cooling apparatus could be kept fueled with ice.

An it took a LOT of ice. Swift & Company estimated that each carload of beef consumed 700 pounds of salt an as much ice by weight as beef shipped per carload.

During the 1880s, Swift’s company was using nearly a half-million tons of ice annually to ship his meat east—and he wasn’t the only meat packer using the technique by then.

So, along with the booming popularity of home ice boxes, the meat packers and other industries were also using lots of ice every year. Originally, ice was harvested close to where it was consumed by small local companies or, in the case of the packing industry, by the companies themselves. But that changed with the shear scale of the amounts needed. It wasn’t long before the thick ice behind every nearly every mill dam in the country was being harvested during the winter, packed between layers of sawdust in giant ice houses, and then doled out the rest of the year.

When the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road was finished in 1870, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity with the combination of rail transportation and the availability of ice behind several mill dams on the Fox River.

The first company to take advantage of the combination of available ice and the rail line was Chicago’s Caledonia Ice Company. Robert Hutchinson, the company’s owner, began work on a major ice storage facility in Yorkville in the fall of 1873. Hutchinson situated the new facility on land along the south bank of the Fox leased from the owners of the Paris Paper, Grist & Saw Mills, just upstream from the dam. Workers finished four interconnected ice houses, 20 feet high measuring a total of 100×100 feet, in time for the winter ice harvest.

Esch Brothers & Rabe's steam ice elevator at their Oswego ice houses was used to raise the ice cakes, weighing between 200 and 400 pounds, from the level of the river up into the ice houses.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s steam ice elevator at their Oswego ice houses was used to raise the ice cakes, weighing between 200 and 400 pounds, from the level of the river up into the ice houses.

As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 24, 1873: “The [ice] cakes are cut 22 inches square…the ice will be cut by ice plows, of which five will be used, each drawn by a horse. About 30 men will be employed through the winter and our to five in the summer. The company expects to ship three carloads, or 30 tons, to Chicago every night during the summer in cars fitted for the purpose.”

Sensing an opportunity, the Chicago firm of Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first icehouse at the old Village of Troy above the Parker mill dam north of Oswego in November 1874. The 60×102 foot icehouse was quickly filled with 15″ thick ice from the millpond. Ice harvested during the winter was then shipped on the rail line to markets near and far.

The venture was so successful that 13 more houses were quickly added and the railroad built a siding to make it easier to load carloads of ice. The company also built an elevator to hoist the large cakes of ice from the river up a multi-story scaffold. The cakes, weighing 200-400 pounds each, were skidded down the scaffolding to fill each house, layer by layer, each insulated with sawdust from the adjacent Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory. The company quickly became Oswego’s largest employer. In January 1879, 75 men worked on the ice harvest and in 1880, 584 railcar loads of ice were shipped from Oswego.

It was an industry, however, doomed by technology. First, increasing pollution of the Midwest’s rivers led to ice unfit for human consumption. Second, several bad years of ice harvests made the industry a chancy investment. Third, the ice houses, filled as they were with dried sawdust, were fire hazards. Two separate fires destroyed all of the Oswego ice houses; they were never rebuilt. Yorkville’s ice houses also burned, were rebuilt, and then burned again. And fourth, mechanical ice production proved more efficient and sanitary than harvesting it from lakes and streams.

Today, there is virtually no evidence remaining of the ice industry, which at one time made use of gigantic ice houses, steam powered elevators, and rail sidings and employed gangs of workers.



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Filed under Food, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Transportation

Fun program; great questions…

The program at the LWS Museum last night was quite successful, I’d say. We had right around 20 paying customers, plus a few more OHA board members attend.

Thanks to Jody Behrens from the Village Grind for bringing treats. I love treats! Instead of our usual bottled water, we enjoyed three (count ’em!) kinds of coffee and bumble berry pie. I love pie!

The question and answer session was particularly fun, with lots of interesting questions and fun discussions. During the evening, we managed to get off on the topic of the ice industry in Oswego, and questions brought up some neat information hiding in my brain. Such as ice harvesting was not confined to the Fox River. Granted, Esch Brothers & Rabe had a huge ice harvesting operation just above the Parker mills and dam. But others also harvested ice for sale. There was the Fox River Creamery in Oswego and the local Oswego butcher shop who contracted with the Hopkins family to harvest ice off their limestone quarries along Wolf’s Crossing Road, just outside the village. And there was Charles Smith, whose ice harvesting operation on Waubonsie Creek was conducted for several years after Esch Brothers’ ice business ceased operating in Oswego. In fact, the old dam for the Smith ice operation is one of the structures now being removed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to make the creek once more a free-flowing stream.

So, all in all, a fun evening of local history…

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Filed under Food, Fox River, Kendall County, Oswego