Tag Archives: Illinois

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

Friends and acquaintances dying is getting to be all too common these days, with me having spent 70 summers on this here Earth.

Many of my friends are passionate people, and all are interesting. But only a few have made the kind of lasting impression on his community and region due to his passion that Bob Rung did.

fishing-the-fox

Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Fox River of Illinois draws thousands of anglers to the Fox Valley and also provides an excellent recreation source for area residents. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois-Wisconsin Fishing Blog)

His first and greatest passion was fishing, something to which he had devoted (as near as I could tell) his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, too. His family moved to the sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision between Montgomery and Oswego when he and his siblings were children, and there he grew up within walking distance of the Fox River.

He honed his skills and learned on his own how to manufacture the lures and equipment best-suited to tracking down the wily smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and other gamefish that were so rare when we were kids.

We went through high school together although he, being a Boulder Hill kid, wasn’t someone I hung around with. But he walked into the gym with the rest of us on graduation night in May 1964 after which so many of us went our own ways.

And for Bob, like so many of my male classmates, that meant being shipped off to the jungles and rivers and mountains of Vietnam, where he put his training as a U.S. Army medic to work, getting wounded himself along the way. When he came home he decided to put his love of animals in general and fish in particular to use and in the fall of 1971 he and a partner bought the Oswego Fish & Hobby Shop at 25 Jefferson Street, across the street from the Oswego Public Library in the Wilhelm Building.

But his first love was still the Fox River and fishing and he eventually decided to see if he could make a career out of it, which he managed to do by becoming a college-educated fisheries biologist working for the Illinois Department of Conservation.

And that’s where Bob and I met again. He knew that I had a pretty strong interest in the Fox River, too, especially in our local environmental hero who called himself “The Fox.” So when I needed some technical background for stories I was doing on the river or its tributaries, Bob was my go-to source.

Like me, he really hated the dams that dot the river from Dayton just above Ottawa near the river’s mouth to the series of dams that create the Chain O’Lakes up north. I did a number of articles about the Yorkville dam and how good it would be for the health of the river to get rid of it, and Bob helped by supplying me with good sources for research on the harm dams do to the streams they block.

Bob was also a major source of expert information and oversight after the Flood of 1996 badly damaged the dams along Waubonsie Creek, and the Oswegoland Park District decided to remove all the ones it had access to. The dams had been built over a span of more than a century, one to provide deep enough water for an ice harvesting operation, one to back up water to fill the water hazards at Fox Bend Golf Course, and the others for varying reasons. The problem was, the dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and that had a negative impact on the diversity of life in the Fox River. So Bob strongly advocated for their removal, something we were able to help push along down at the newspaper. Today, fish can easily swim upstream to spawn, something that has had an extremely positive impact on the Fox River.

water-willow-planting

Friends of the Fox River organize an American Water Willow planting project in the summer of 2015. Bob Rung championed planting water willows up and down the Fox River’s banks to stabilize them and to provide enhanced habitat for fish. (Friends of the Fox River photo)

In addition, Bob was fascinated with improving the entire ecology of the river basin to enhance the environment for fish. To that end, he got both me and Jim Phillips—that aforementioned furry crusader doing business as “The Fox”—interested in his campaign to plant American Water Willows up and down the river’s banks. A low-growing tough-stemmed plant, it grows in colonies that stabilize stream banks, which is a good thing in and of itself. But in addition, the plants’ leaves, stems, and flowers also provide browse for deer, and its rhizomes provide tasty meals for beavers and muskrats. In addition, the plants’ water-covered roots and rhizomes provide cover newly hatched gamefish minnows and a fine habitat for invertebrates that fish and other creatures feed on.

bob-rung-gar

Bob Rung tosses a long-nosed gar back in the water in this 2012 photo from the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Over the years, he got organizations ranging from the Illinois Smallmouth Bass Alliance to the Friends of the Fox River to plant thousands of water willows along the rivershed’s stream banks. I once kidded him that he’d become the Johnny Appleseed of water willow propagation, and after a moment of silence he said he wouldn’t mind being called that.

Bob’s passion was the Fox River and he was one of those lucky individuals who was able to do important things that not only satisfied his own keen interests, but also left a continuing legacy for generations to come. On the Fox River below Montgomery, everyone who stalks fighting smallmouth bass and trophy muskies, who enjoys quiet canoe rides through a genetically rich and diverse riverscape, or who just likes to sit and appreciate the river’s beauty and serenity owes Bob Rung a vote of thanks for what he accomplished for the rest of us.

 

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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

A great lake guaranteed Illinois’ economic success

Depending on their viewpoint and the era during which they lived, early explorers and settlers considered Lake Michigan to be either a priceless water highway deep into the interior of North America or a 307 mile long barrier to western travel.

The earliest European explorers didn’t even know Lake Michigan existed, thanks to the antipathy towards the French by the Iroquois Confederacy. French adventurers explored and mapped Lake Superior in the 1630s, long before the Iroquois allowed them passage to discover there was great water highway to the south. Not until Marquette and Jolliet explored south along the western store of Lake Michigan in 1673 did its length become appreciated.

A decade later, René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle used Lake Michigan as the major route to his new commercial colony in Illinois. By doing so, the French were able to bypass the Ohio River route to the west, the northern reaches of which were controlled by the well-armed and organized Iroquois Confederacy and their British allies.

Until the end of the French and Indian War in North America in 1764, Lake Michigan was, literally, a French lake. French forts controlled the Straits of Mackinac, Green Bay, and periodically Chicago and the mouth of the St. Joseph River at the southern end of the lake.

After the era of French control, the British controlled the lake for only a decade and a half or so before the new United States wrested control of most of the Great Lakes during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812, essentially a short, less successful, continuation of the Revolution, did manage to solidify U.S. control over the lakes.

1831 Fort Dearborn

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before the U.S. Army built a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River.

During the era of U.S. pioneer settlement, Lake Michigan became more an impediment than a help to settlement. That was because there was no harbor at the southern end of the lake. The rivers emptying into Green Bay gave access to the Mississippi River via portages to the Wisconsin River, but that left the interior of what would become Illinois difficult to reach. Sailing ships that arrived in Chicago had to lighter their cargoes using small boats to laboriously across the sandbar blocking the mouth of the shallow and sluggish Chicago River. The ships themselves, however, could not enter the river and so were unable to dock to ride out the storms that frequently blew up. As a result, ships had to quickly unload and get back out into the lake to avoid being driven ashore by rough weather.

Settlers that came west to Detroit, where there was a port, were hindered in heading overland to the Illinois prairies along the old Territorial Road by numerous bogs and swamps in Michigan and Indiana.

Not until the 1830s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel through the sandbar, was a true harbor created at Chicago. The new channel allowed ships to enter the Chicago River and safely dock, and also made unloading cargo a lot faster and less labor-intensive. Almost overnight, Chicago became a major Great Lakes port. In 1833, only four sailing ships called at Chicago. In 1834, after the first channel through the bar opened, 176 sailing vessels arrived.

Chicago’s position so far south allowed ships to carry grain from the prairie hinterland in the Des Plaines, DuPage, and Fox River valleys directly to the great eastern cities and return with goods ranging from finished products to lumber to build the great city that was taking shape along the lake shore.

Chicago Grain Elevators

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River just as Chicago was becoming the premier grain transhipment point in the nation.

In an astonishingly short time, in fact, Chicago displaced St. Louis as the chief grain shipment center in the west. St. Louis was well located on the Mississippi, but that was a curse as well as a blessing. Grain elevators, when they were finally invented and then perfected, could not be safely located on the shore of the great river because of its frequent floods. Chicago, however, with its location on Lake Michigan and the slow, sluggish Chicago River, was not affected by flooding since the lake level remained constant. That meant grain elevators could be built along the Chicago River—and the riverbank was soon lined with the towering structures.

In the late 1840s, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River—and from there the great Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri River system. The canal made shipping grain that much more efficient since it could be sent both south on the canal to the New Orleans market as well as east on the lakes to the New York market. In addition, the canal offered farmers living near its banks an easier shipping destination than hauling it overland all the way into Chicago.

At virtually the same time, railroads began to stretch west to Chicago and beyond, and the era of shipping cargo strictly via the lakes was over. Railroads that headed straight west from New York, Baltimore, and the other great eastern cities eventually met Lake Michigan, where they had to curve south to pass the end of the lake. And that made Chicago an even greater city. Not only was it still the lakes’ greatest port, but it quickly became the great rail center of the West.

With both ships and trains arriving in Chicago in large numbers, the population of the city and its hinterland quickly grew. It proved a boon for Kendall County, with new settlers able to cheaply and easily travel west from their old homes to Chicago and then undertake a short overland journey to the rich prairie lands along the Fox River. Once settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found themselves in an excellent location to easily get both their crops and livestock to the growing markets in Chicago and to take advantage of lower cost goods from raw lumber to finished clothing.

More than almost any other geographical feature, Lake Michigan has had the greatest long-term effect on the economic growth of Illinois throughout the history of the region. Although the lake is no longer the vital shipping link with the East it once was, its effect on rail and road transportation routes has guaranteed that Illinois will remain a U.S. economic powerhouse for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

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Mother Nature, economics conspired to afflict area farmers in 1934…

In terms of numbers of people affected economically, 1933 was the worst year in Kendall County history. But 1934 didn’t provide much, if any, relief for county residents dealing with the profound effects of the Great Depression. In fact, bad just kept getting worse.

Not only was the nation dealing with the horrendous financial effects of the Great Depression, but severe drought was destroying farms and farmers all over the country. The drought, driven by hot, dry weather over a period of several months, resulted in the formation of severe dust storms that blew up out of the high, dry western plains and then surged east all the way to Washington, D.C., where a bewildered government was attempting to deal with the effects of dual nationwide financial and ecological disasters.

The Depression had begun with the stock market crash of October 1929, and from then on conditions got progressively and steadily worse over the next four years. Even so, the feeling of much of the country was that things would get better soon if only everyone would buck up and a little confidence in the country’s future. That was the course President Herbert Hoover had urged in the face of near-total economic collapse before everyone had enough and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

On Dec. 27, 1933, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall was still urging his readers to make 1934 a better year by the power of positive thinking:

“Few of us want to start 1934 with anything but a firm belief that the new year holds better things for us. We shouldn’t start the new year with a feeling that things will be worse. To do this will insure a bad year…Success is a result of your own efforts so if 1934 proves a disappointment, look to your own efforts before blaming anyone else for your bad luck.”

Milk Strike

Members of the Pure Milk Association dump milk before it could get to a non-member dairy in Harvard, Illinois sometime in the 1930s. The successful “Milk Strike” led to organizing farmers to get higher prices for their milk.

Positive thinking in place, the hits unfortunately just kept on coming. Farm commodity prices got so bad that notoriously independent farmers were finally starting to band together (as their urban worker countrymen already had) to demand more. Dairy farmers, for instance, who had formed the Pure Milk Association were conducting a milk strike, stopping trucks hauling milk from non-PMA members to Chicago dairies.

The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:

“As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [today’s U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch… After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.”

While farmers were in bad straits, so were their city cousins. In order to create paying jobs for some of the working men thrown out of work by the Depression, the Roosevelt Administration’s new Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration was financing projects throughout the nation including right here in Kendall County, including bridge and road work. In February, even the Record’s editor, a firm Republican, had to grudgingly admit the government help seemed to be working:

May 13, 2010. Photo by Margaret Gienger.

Often derided as “make-work,” Works Progress Administration projects were sometimes literal lifesavers for the families of unemployed workers hired for them. In 1934, Oswego’s Little White School, now the Little White School Museum, was jacked up and a basement dug beneath it to provide more space as a WPA project, one of many throughout Kendall County.

“We drove on the East River road [modern Ill. Route 25] out of Aurora the other night and hardly knew the road. The work of the men on the CWA has made a real highway out of it. Some bad curves have been made safer by leveling off the banks on the side of the road. Good work, men.”

Meanwhile, the area’s farmers were hoping against hope that both luck and the weather would change in their favor. On April 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent commented: “The farmers have begun working in the fields with renewed hope that this year’s crops will at least afford them a living and cash for taxes and interest on their debts.”

Overcoming their aversion to government meddling in their business, virtually all of the county’s 1,080 farmers agreed to participate in the Agriculture Adjustment Administration’s corn and hog program. The AAA was another of Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” formed to fight the depression.

But extremely dry conditions persisted throughout Kendall County and in April the Record reported:

1934 May 11 Dust Storm

This dust storm, pictured west of the Mississippi, roared all the way from the Great Plains to the Eastern seaboard on May 11, 1934. An even more destructive storm had hit the central United States the previous month. Dust from the plains blew through Kendall County, where some of it precipitated out of the air and sifted across the landscape, filling ditches and infiltrating into homes.

“Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the winter time. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”

Those conditions not only hindered crop growth, but also contributed to the ongoing plague of chinch bugs. According to the Record:

“The estimate of W.P. Flint, state entomologist, that chinch bugs would be five times as plentiful this spring as a year ago has come true. Damage to wheat fields and even oats by dry weather and chinch bugs is causing many farmers to plan re-seeding some of their grain fields to soybeans.”

The weather proved not only dry, but also extremely erratic. Excessive heat and drought not apparently being enough for Mother Nature, newly sprouted farm crops as well as gardens were devastated by destructive late May frosts, the Record reporting that:

“Two hard frosts last week worked havoc with the fruit and gardens. The corn, just nicely started, turned brown in many places and potatoes froze to the ground. Many farmers are planting over.”

Chinch Bug

Dry, hot conditions during the early 1930s led to an explosion in the chinch bug population. Tens of millions of the insects destroyed thousands of acres of crops in Illinois including in Kendall County in the days before effective pesticides were developed.

Then following the frosts the week before, new heat records were set May 31 and June 1 and on June 4 another dust storm hit. Meanwhile, “Thousands of miles of [chinch bug] barriers have been built as a result of demonstrations staged by county farm advisers, the extension service of the college of agriculture and the Illinois State Natural History Survey,” the Record reported.

Also in June, the federal government began to come to the rescue, announcing a drought relief program. To be eligible farmers had to certify they were in need of feed and seed to maintain their families, and also had to swear they were unable to supply sufficient feed and seed for himself. County officials estimated that while things weren’t good, few farmers fit that description, but it turned out, astonishingly enough, more than 20 percent of the county’s farmers applied for and really did qualify for emergency federal drought relief.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau and the federal government provided chinch bug eradication supplies, and county farmers kept battling whatever Mother Nature and the financial industry could throw at them. But it wasn’t until several years passed that they and their city brothers were able to get their heads above water again, thanks to their own collective action and an often grudgingly accepted hand up from Uncle Sam.

 

 

 

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Seem more humid these days? That’s because it probably is.

Note: The first version of this post was wrong, and thanks to commenter R. Anderson for pointing it out. Below is the new and (I’m fervently hoping) improved post. Math and I have never gotten along, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better the older I get…

Each summer, the Matiles up-stakes and head for Wisconsin’s Northwoods for periodic respites from the plague of corn pollen around these parts. The trips are unfortunately brief, but the respites are always welcomed.

I’ve been plagued with an allergy to grass pollen my entire life, something that makes living out here on the Illinois prairie during the summer months a trial. If it isn’t one kind of grass pollinating, it’s another. And a corn stalk, after all, is just a giant blade of grass.

Getting out of town this time of year, in fact, is a fine old Oswego tradition. On Aug. 19, 1880, the Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.” So I’m in good historical company, at least.

And corn just doesn’t affect us allergy sufferers, either. I saw a piece on the Weather Channel the other day about the effect all those fields of corn have on the weather here in northern Illinois. It turns out it’s a fairly large impact, especially on the fields’ impact on the region’s humidity.

In fact, it’s probably a lot more humid during mid-summer days now than it was 60 years ago, thanks to all that corn.

Why?

1938 Husking Stewart corn

Graeme Stewart used Case equipment to pick and husk the corn on his farm in Oswego and Wheatland townships back in 1938. Note how far apart the rows of corn are, as well as the space between each individual corn stalk. In pre-herbicide days, corn was planted at greater intervals to allow for more efficient mechanical cultivating.

In 1950, the U.S. Farm Census reported that Kendall County farmers grew about 80,000 acres of corn. During that era, individual corn plants were not spaced very close together. In fact, some farmers preferred to check or horse-step corn when they planted it, leaving an equidistant space between each individual stalk of corn and its neighbors. That allowed farmers to use their tractor-mounted cultivators to first run one direction, and then to do the field again perpendicular to the first go-round in order to get the weeds on all four sides of each stalk. That made a lot of sense in those pre-herbicide days when weeds had to be removed by hand.

By 2007, Kendall County farmers were planting more than 102,000 acres of corn. The increase in acreage was due to a number of factors, but was primarily caused by the shift from diversified farming, where each farm grew grain, forage, and livestock to today’s modern farming operations that specialize in either grain or livestock. All those fields in the 1950s that were dedicated to pastureland or planted in alfalfa and other forage crops, or oats and wheat are now planted in corn.

And not only are more acres of corn being cultivated in rural Illinois these days, but the corn plants themselves are much different than the ones farmers planted 60 years ago. Today’s corn is taller than its ancestors, grows much faster, and the plants are planted much more closely together.

A modern corn field

In this photo of a modern corn field, note how much closer together the rows of corn are, and how much closer together each individual corn plant is than they were in the photo taken of Graeme Stewart’s 1938 harvest.

These days, according to Delta Farm Press, farmers grow an average of 36,000 closely spaced corn plants on an acre of land. In 1900, according to Bulletin 111, “Corn Culture,” published by the Alabama Agricultural Station at Auburn, farmers were planting less than 3,200 plants per acre. Through the years, that number increased thanks to more efficient mechanical planters, better strains of corn, hybridization, and introducing better fertilizers. By the 1950s, Midwestern farmers were planting at least 10,000 plants per acre, and now they’re growing more than three times as many plants per acre.

Through the growing season, each one of those corn stalks draws a tremendous amount of water out of the soil for growth, and then transpirates 53 gallons of excess water into the atmosphere, most of it expelled during the prime growing season of July and August.

So do the math: Every modern acre planted in corn transpirates a total of nearly 2 million gallons of water during the growing season, with the bulk of it being expelled during the prime July and August growing season. And with Kendall’s 102,000 acres of corn, that means the plants are pumping 189 billion (that’s billion with a “b” son) gallons of water into the air during an average year. Back in 1950, each acre of corn was pumping out 530,000 gallons of water a season, which means, the county’s corn crop was transpirating 42.4 billion gallons of water into the atmosphere from early June through late September. That means about four and a half times the amount of humidity is being released today compared to 60 years ago.

An acre of prairie grass or other crops such as oats or wheat also transpirates water into the atmosphere, but at less than half the rates compared to corn.

So, it’s no wonder it seems a mite muggier around these parts nowadays. Crop scientists and meteorologists claim that dense corn fields can raise the dew point—the amount of humidity at which us humans become uncomfortable—by more than 10 percentage points or sometimes even more. The difference in the way you feel outside between a dew point of 50° and 70° is considerable.

And, of course, that’s just Kendall County. Head west on U.S. Route 30 or U.S. Route 34 or a country road like Galena Road, or south on Ill. Route 71 or Route 47, and you’ll see that there are millions of acres of corn in pretty close proximity to us here in the mid-Fox River Valley in DeKalb, Grundy, LaSalle, Kane, and all the other counties west to the Mississippi and south all the way to Marion and north to the Wisconsin border.

So yes, it was hot when I was a kid growing up, first on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and then here at the Matile Manse in Oswego, but it seems fairly clear that it probably wasn’t nearly as humid in July and August as it is these days.

 

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It was St. Louis vs Chicago—And we’re not talking baseball, either

Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.

You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.

From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.

Loading grain sacks

Until grain elevators were perfected, grain was shipped in sacks from the farm to market. Each sack was handled numerous times until it reached it’s ultimate destination, a process that was expensive and time-consuming.

In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.

No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.

1857 Chicago port

This detail from J. T. Palmatary’s 1857 bird’s-eye view of Chicago shows why the warehouses and grain elevators along South Water Street offered so much efficiency in handling everything from lumber to grain. All manner of transportation, including rail cars, wagons, and sail and steamships could load and unload cargoes simultaneously.

All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.

In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.

With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.

Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.

1852 St. Louis Levee

Thomas Easterly’s 1852 Daguerreotype of the busy St. Louis Levee illustrates the distance between the river and shoreline warehouses dictated by the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River’s water levels throughout the year. Every barrel, box, and sack of cargo had to be physically carried across the levy to and from waiting steamboats.

Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.

In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.

Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.

1874 Eads Bridge, St. Louis

James B. Eads’ revolutionary bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis didn’t open until 1874, more than two decades after a web of rail lines extended from Chicago to the rest of the Midwest. The bridge created the city’s first direct rail link to the east side of the Mississippi, but it proved too late to succeed in competition with Chicago.

St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.

By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.

Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.

But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.

There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.

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Lewis, Clark, Boone, Earp, Wayne: Illinois’ entertaining historical coincidences…

Random coincidences are some of the things that make the study of history so interesting.

Daniel Boone House

The sturdy Daniel Boone home in Defiance, Missouri may come as a surprise to those who think he lived in log cabins all his life. A talented blacksmith, he handcrafted the home’s locks, hinges, and other hardware.

For instance, in May 1804, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark and their Corps of Discovery pushed off into the Mississippi River from Wood River, Illinois and headed up the Missouri River. The expedition’s goal was to explore the huge Louisiana Territory President Thomas Jefferson had bought from Spain and determine if there was a practical trade route to the Pacific Ocean.

Although just under way, Lewis and Clark decided to make a brief stop just a bit upstream from St. Louis. They had been told the old explorer, soldier, and settler Daniel Boone was living just a few miles away, and so they decided to stop by to see what the old pathfinder might be able to tell them.

So, the story goes, the pair visited Boone to ask about the techniques they might use and dangers they should be on the lookout for while exploring the West. The picture of the two eager young explorers conferring with the grand old man of frontier adventure is a fascinating one. But then Boone was a fascinating fellow in his own right, something you find right away when you visit his imposing three-storey Pennsylvania-style stone house (and you thought he lived in a log cabin!), which is still standing and lovingly maintained in the hamlet of Defiance, Missouri, just west of St. Charles. And thus did three of the three greatest explorers the U.S. has produced get together to chat.

Illinois history is sprinkled with such coincidences, and they are often the things that make reading about it so much fun.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp was a legendary lawman in the Old West. His father, Nicholas, a town constable in Monmouth, Illinois, didn’t get along with a faction in town led by Presbyterian Marion Morrison.

For instance, a 1997 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society had an interesting article about Wyatt Earp’s father, Nicholas P. Earp. We all know the story about Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil and Doc Holiday at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. But few of us know their introduction to law enforcement came from their father, Nicholas, who was the town constable of Monmouth, Illinois, located on U.S. Route 34 in western Illinois’ Warren County.

Just like his sons, Nicholas didn’t get along with the local power structure. He had continual run-ins with a band of local ministers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and officials from Monmouth College, at that time a strictly religious school. Nicholas not only had strong personal views, but was also distrustful of reformers of any stripe. His problems stemmed from his relative unconcern with enforcing Monmouth’s temperance ordinance, which was favored by local Republicans (the temperance party) and influential Presbyterian congregations. Liquor was supposed to be sold only by druggists for medicinal purposes, but Nicholas and his brother Walter Earp were in favor of a liberal interpretation of the law (including what “medicinal” really meant) and came down on the side of their friends, the drug store owners. One of the Earps’ antagonists was a fellow named Marion Morrison, a staunch Presbyterian and temperance man.

John Wayne.jpg

John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison, was the namesake of Wyatt Earp’s father’s political enemy. It is too bad Wayne never played Earp in one of his films or a historical circle might have been completed.

And that’s where the historical coincidence comes in. Marion Morrison, the political enemy of Wyatt Earp’s father, it turns out, was the great-uncle of actor John Wayne who made his name in western movies. In fact, the Earps’ enemy, Morrison, was the actor’s namesake. John “Duke” Wayne’s real name was, of course, Marion Mitchell Morrison. John Wayne never played Wyatt Earp in the movies, but if he had it would have made for some nicely symmetrical history.

The Illinois historical event that arguably had the most historical coincidences was the Black Hawk War of 1832. The unequal conflict was fought between a rag-tag band of Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi Indians led by the influential Sauk warrior Black Hawk on one side and the Illinois militia and U.S. Army on the other. The coincidences abound in the roster of those fighting against the Indians, which appears to be a veritable Who’s Who of Civil War personages.

For instance, not only did Abraham Lincoln, future U.S. President during the Civil War, participate in the Black Hawk War, but so did U.S. Army Lt. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Lincoln, a young Illinois storekeeper at the time, served in the militia, where he was elected captain of his militia

Abraham Lincoln

A young Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War, along with several men who would be his allies and enemies during the Civil War.

company. Davis served near the end of the war doing various administrative tasks. To add to the interest, both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky, Davis to a moderately wealthy family and Lincoln to a very poor one.

In the aftermath of the Black Hawk War, one of the tasks Davis was ordered to undertake was to escort the Sauk and Fox prisoners, including Black Hawk, to prison. He was under the orders of another U.S. Army lieutenant named Robert Anderson. Almost 30 years later, Anderson, then a major, would be in command of Ft. Sumter when it was fired upon by South Carolina secessionist forces loyal to his one-time brother-in-arms, Jefferson Davis.

The aide-de-camp of Gen. Henry Atkinson, the U.S. Army commander on the scene during virtually the entire Black Hawk War was another young U.S. Army lieutenant named Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston later served in the army of the Republic of Texas from 1834-37, and was named the Republic’s secretary of war in 1838. Later, he moved back to the U.S., rejoined the U.S. Army, and served on the western frontier with the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment until the

Jefferson Davis

Lt. Jefferson Davis was one of the U.S. Army officers who served during the Black Hawk War, and who eventually turned their coats during the Civil War. Davis served as the Confederate States of America’s only president.

Civil War broke out. He resigned his commission, went home and was appointed a Confederate major general to fight against his old comrades. A friend and favorite of President Jefferson Davis (with whom he had served during the Black Hawk War), Johnston was killed in action at Shiloh in 1862.

The other major Civil War personage to serve in the Black Hawk War was Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott led the U.S. Army reinforcements who arrived (carrying the dreaded Asiatic cholera disease with them) in Chicago in the summer of 1832, and he helped mop up after the Black Hawk War. When the Civil War broke out, Scott was the U.S. Army’s commander. And while’s Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze the Confederacy into submission by dividing the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River and attacking it all around the periphery came in for derisive criticism at the time. In the end, the basic points of Scott’s strategy were adopted piecemeal and became the eventual strategy Abraham Lincoln adopted to defeat the South.

Historical coincidences can sometimes offer important insights into the motivations driving historical events. Mostly, though, they’re just plain fun.

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The time they tried turning Model T Fords into farm tractors

Had to go here and there over the weekend, and couldn’t help but notice all the water standing in fields here in the Fox Valley.

While I was up north trying to entice nice plump walleyes to take my bait, it apparently rained a lot around these parts. Farmers who were lucky enough to get their crops planted in those fields now sporting ponds of various sizes will be forced to replant. These days, it’s expensive in energy, seed, and fertilizer costs, but at least it’s doable. Back in the day before motorized farm equipment, such a condition could lead to economic disaster.

When World War I broke out, farmers in Europe and North America almost exclusively farmed with horses. From pulling plows and other soil preparation equipment to providing the power to run elevators and other on-the-farm equipment, the horse was king.

Steam tractors had been in use for decades prior to that time, but they were mostly used simply to tow threshing machines and their related equipment from farm to farm, upon which they supplied stationary steam power via pulley and belt to run the machines.

1912 Rumely Oil Pull

The kerosene-fueled Rumely Oil Pull was one of the first popular internal combustion engine farm tractors. Heavy, underpowered, and expensive, they weren’t overwhelmingly popular.

But with the continuing development and perfection of the internal combustion engine, change was on the horizon by 1914. By then, a few tractors with kerosene-fueled internal combustion engines had already appeared on farms around the country. The new machines were still big, expensive, underpowered, and often unreliable, and farmers were concerned that they had to purchase fuel for them instead of growing it on their farms like they did for their horse teams.

When war broke out, however, the European armies began buying huge numbers of horses and that, to the consternation of U.S. farmers, caused the price of even mediocre horseflesh to skyrocket.

On Dec. 9, 1914, Hugh R. Marshall reported in the Kendall County Record that: “A representative of the Montreal Horse Company, who was in Yorkville last week, gives some interesting information. He was here buying [horses] for the artillery and cavalry of the European armies and says that England and France have placed orders for 80,000 horses…The average price now being paid for horses is about $110 each, he says, and if the present demand continues an ordinary plug horse will next summer be worth $300.”

When the U.S. entered the war three years later, the demand for horses just kept climbing. But by then, tractor manufacturers were working hard to perfect their machines, none more so than Chicago’s International Harvester Company. By the time the U.S. entered the war, IHC was marketing Titan tractors along with their own IHC brand.

Moline two-wheeled tractorIn 1910, there were just 10 tractor manufacturing companies in the U.S. By 1920, the number had skyrocketed to 190 companies. Most of the machines being produced were of the familiar wide front end four-wheel design, although three-wheeled tractors and four-wheeled tractors with narrow front ends were not uncommon. And starting in 1913, the Moline Plow Co. in Moline, Ill. had begun manufacturing a two-wheeled tractor, sort of like a giant modern garden tractor, designed for use with a variety of attachments, including plows, harrows, planters, cultivators, and mowers.

But tractors, even two-wheeled Moline Universals, were expensive and farmers, always short on ready cash, were looking for something cheaper.

1917 27 Jun 20th Cent Farm HorseEnter American ingenuity.

By 1917, the Ford Motor Company had manufactured two million Model T’s. In their myriad of variants, Model T’s were everywhere doing about everything a motor vehicle could be modified to do. So it was almost a natural progression when some bright inventors created Model T add-on attachments to transform the ubiquitous vehicles into lightweight farm tractors.

In Yorkville here in Kendall County, while Hemm and Zeiter were selling two-wheeled Moline Universals and Jacob Armbruster was marketing hardy 10-20 Titans, J.E. Price became the local dealer for the 20th Century Farm Horse, an eyebrow raising tractor attachment for the Model T.

Manufactured by the Farm Tractor Company at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the attachment kit cost $190, a fraction of the cost of a new traditional tractor. For that amount, the purchaser received a kit that bolted onto the rear of a Model T frame, replacing the Ford’s rear wheels and differential with a sturdy two-wheeled carriage and heavier differential featuring two large steel wheels with lug treads.

As Price’s ad in the June 27, 1917 Record put it: “The 20th Century Farm Horse is guaranteed to equip any Ford car to do the work of 3 to 4 horses on any farm. Why pay $700 or $800 for a heavy tractor when your Ford will do the work for one-fifth the money?”

20th Century Farm Horse in action

After bolting the 20th Century Farm Horse attachment onto his Model T Ford, the farmer still had to figure out how to use it, especially with some tow-behind equipment like this farmer’s binder. It often wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Indeed, it seemed like a tempting deal. “Not only is the original cost small, but the cost of running is away less than horse feed,” Price contended. “They don’t eat when not in use. They don’t get tired. Flies don’t bother them. In hot harvest weather they don’t drop in the harness. In the rush season, plowing can be done at night by means of the Ford headlights. When the plowing season is over, two hours’ work and you have a Ford pleasure car.”

So, what wasn’t to like? Well, it turned out that while Model T’s were perfectly fine for driving around the countryside on the often-terrible roads of the era, they really weren’t built to be driving across farm fields pulling agricultural implements. The kits not only lacked air and oil filters to prevent damage to the Model T’s engine, but there was no additional oil capacity for the engine crankcase.

Actual tractors of that era were, according to The Agricultural Digest of November 1917, designed for three major purposes: belt purposes, heavy drawbar work, and light cultivation work. The 20th Century Farm Horse was fine, it appeared, for light cultivation work. But it was less able for heavy drawbar work—pulling plows and other such tasks—and totally unsuited for belt work. What was belt work? Tractors were expected to be able to use their power take-off pulley to power grain elevators, threshing machines, hay presses (stationary hay balers), and other equipment. Model T’s were built without any sort of a power take-off.

Still, the lure of only having to buy one complete motor vehicle that could be quickly transformed from the family auto into a tractor and back again was a strong one.

Intrigued by the idea, The Agriculture Digest conducted a trial with a 20th Century Farm Horse and, unfortunately, found it wanting. The machine was barely capable of pulling a two-bottomed plow through even mildly heavy soil. Further, the two-hour change-over promised in Farm Horse ads was wildly optimistic, the magazine found. In fact, it became almost standard practice to buy an old Model T and just leave the Farm Horse attachment permanently installed.

The era of tractor attachments for autos was a brief one, ending by the mid-1920s. And there is no telling how many—or few—Kendall County farmers bought into the idea. But farm equipment collectors still prize these unusual vestiges of the era when farm mechanization was just getting a good start in the U.S.

 

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