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Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.


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Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

The Erie Canal, championed and promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton opened in 1826 and immediately became a huge economic engine, not only for New York but also for the newly settled states and territories of the Old Northwest.

The canal, 363 miles long, linked the head of navigation on the Hudson River at Albany with Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie. Commerce on and along the canal absolutely boomed as soon as it opened, making a hero of Clinton (admiring New Yorkers heading west gave his name to counties and towns all the way west to the Pacific) and creating huge markets for Midwestern grain and livestock, not to mention providing an efficient transportation route for many of those westbound settlers.

Jesuit linguist Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet canoed up the Illinois River in 1673, and suggested it wouldn’t be difficult to build a canal linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The Erie Canal’s success also prompted a frenzy of canal-building elsewhere, especially in Ohio. And it also spurred reexamination of plans to build a canal in Illinois linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The idea for such a canal had been first broached in 1673 when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago rivers on their way back to Lake Michigan from a trip of discovery down the Mississippi. Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, predicted it wouldn’t take much effort or money to dig a canal from the headwaters of the Chicago River on Mud Lake to the upper Des Plaines allowing boats to quickly pass from the lake to the river and then down the Des Plaines to its junction with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River is formed.

And, in fact, sometimes Mother Nature provided the means to traverse from the Chicago to the Des Plaines River with no portage at all. During spring floods and after heavy rains at other times of the year, the two rivers basically merged. In July 1826, thanks to heavy rains, a crew of 13 voyageurs paddled Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and his secretary, Robert Forsythe, on a desperate 16-day, 1,600-mile journey to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was on the verge of going to war with the U.S.

The crew started their journey at Butte des Morts on the Fox River of Wisconsin upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), and then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. From there they paddled down to Jefferson Barracks, the U.S. Army post at St. Louis, spreading the word along the way. Gen. Henry Atkinson lost no time loading soldiers aboard a steamboat and heading upstream to Winnebago territory—Cass, Forsythe, their voyageur crew, and their canoe was also loaded aboard. When vessel reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass, Forsythe, and their crew left Atkinson and headed up the Illinois to warn as many settlers as they could. When they reached the forks of the Illinois where the Kankakee and the Des Plaines join, they were happy to see there was plenty of water in the Des Plaines—the river was notorious for being virtually dry during the summer months. But those July rainstorms had filled it nicely, so they set their course upstream, paddling as fast as they could. They reached the Mud Lake portage as night fell and laid over for fear of wrecking their canoe, but pushed on as soon as the sun rose. As it turned out, they paddled directly from Mud Lake into the Chicago River and got to the American Fur Company’s post at Chicago at breakfast time. After a day’s rest and reprovisioning, they left Chicago and headed back up the Lake Michigan shoreline, setting a canoeing record that will likely never be eclipsed.

But Cass and Forsythe knew they were lucky to make it over the height of land from the Des Plaines to Mud Lake. Most summers and autumns, the Chicago portage was some 60 miles all the way down the Des Plaines to the Kankakee, with canoes and cargoes often hauled aboard two-wheeled ox carts.

So the idea of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and the immense Mississippi River watershed was attractive and had been for more than 200 years.

In fact, at the Treaty of St. Louis, signed on Aug. 24, 1816, Fox and Sauk tribes ceded a 20-mile wide corridor to the U.S. Government as part of the treaty terms. The cession ran southwesterly from the shore of Lake Michigan down the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers to the Fox River at modern Ottawa. During the winter of 1818-19, John C. Sullivan and his assistant, James M. Duncan, did the initial survey of the corridor’s boundary lines. The accuracy left a bit to be desired—surveying in northern Illinois in the winter is generally contraindicated due to the ferocious weather.

So while the outlines were drawn, it wasn’t until 1821 that the land between the boundary lines was surveyed in anticipation of a canal being constructed. Already owned by the government thanks to treaties with the local tribes, as soon as the land was surveyed, it was opened to the preemption and homestead claims of settlers and speculators.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan.

Throughout the 1820s, Illinois’ Congressional delegation pushed the Federal Government to appropriate funds and grant lands to finance canal construction. In the meantime, a number of issues concerning canal construction had been discovered. When more thorough surveys were done and elevations measured, it was found that the original idea of a simple ditch from Lake Michigan to LaSalle on the Illinois River simply wasn’t possible. The height of land where drainage divided, flowing either to Lake Michigan or to the Illinois River was found to be comprised of extremely hard limestone, creating a barrier that would be costly to burrow through. So engineers came up with a plan for a canal with several locks to get cargo boats up from Lake Michigan across the height of land, and then down 141 feet of fall between Chicago and LaSalle.

The final plan called for a canal 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Erie Canal had been built 40 feet wide and only four feet deep, a size found inadequate almost immediately after opening, so the I&M Canal’s engineers determined to build it big enough to start. They planed to use 15 locks to get down the 141 feet of fall to LaSalle. Because no water would be flowing into the canal from Lake Michigan, three feeder canals were required (Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox), along with one grade-level crossing and feeder combination of the DuPage River. Feeders were a common solution to maintaining canal water levels. The Erie Canal, for instance, had dozens of feeders to regulate its depth.

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal near the Little Vermilion River aqueduct has been restored.

Another engineering problem was how to get the canal across two other rivers (the Fox and the Little Vermilion) and two creeks (AuSable and Nettle) and their respective valleys. Again, the Erie Canal’s engineers had solved a similar problem by building 18 aqueducts to cross streams and valleys along the canal’s course. For the much shorter I&M, just four aqueducts were built, along with one at-grade crossing of the DuPage River.

Construction finally began with great fanfare on July 4, 1836. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837, a severe national financial depression created by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies, brought construction to a halt and essentially bankrupted the State of Illinois. It took several more years for the finances of the nation and Illinois to recover to the point that construction could be finished. The I&M didn’t open to traffic until 1848.

A lot of water was needed to maintain the I&M’s depth as boats and barges locked up and down the canal. As noted above, three smaller canals and one grade-level river crossing were constructed to maintain the I&M’s depth. Feeder canals were dug from the Fox River at Dayton to Ottawa; from the Kankakee River to the canal at Dresden, and from the Saganashkee Slough, the “Sag,” and the Calumet River to the canal near its northern end. The DuPage River was crossed at grade near Channahon.

The Kankakee Feeder was one of three 40-foot wide canals dug to supply the I&M Canal with sufficient water. (Map by the Kankakee Daily Journal, 2018)

Commercial traffic on the canal utilized nine canal basins; 12 widewaters for canal boat storage; sundry backwaters; the three feeders, also called lateral canals; and two hydraulic basins. Eleven towns developed along the I&M Canal, six of them founded by the canal commissioners, including: Ottawa, Chicago, LaSalle, Lockport, Channahon, and Morris.

In general it took between 22 and 26 hours to traverse the entire canal. The quickest recorded passage was 17 hours and 35 minutes. Canal boats traveled about 4 miles per hour.

While the canal itself had a huge economic impact on northern Illinois, the three feeder canals also had major economic effects on the areas surrounding them.

The Calumet Feeder Canal ran from the huge Saganashkee Slough at Blue Island, where the Little Calumet made a hairpin turn toward Lake Michigan, to meet the canal northeast of Lemont at the village of Sag Bridge.

The Kankakee Feeder ran northwest from a dam on the Kankakee River six miles north of Wilmington to the Des Plaines River. There, the feeder canal crossed the river on an aqueduct, to feed the canal just upstream from where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois River.

At Channahon, there was no feeder as such. Instead, the I&M crossed the DuPage River, creating a grade-level feeder for the canal. The Canal Commission built a dam across the DuPage just below where the canal crossed, creating a pool that was on the same level as the canal, allowing canal boats to cross the river with locks providing additional water for the canal as needed.

The Fox River Feeder for the I&M Canal ran south down the west bank of the Fox River to intersect the canal in Ottawa. From the canal, the feeder ran farther south before making a 90-degree turn to reenter the Fox River. (Click here to enlarge)

The final I&M feeder canal was the 40-foot wide Fox River Feeder. It began above the dam in Dayton and extended for nearly five miles south along the west bank of the Fox River to Ottawa where it crossed the I&M. From there, it extended seven blocks due south where it made a 90-degree turn to the east, where it abruptly narrowed to half its width to create more hydraulic power before emptying back into the Fox River. As wide as the original Erie Canal, the Fox River Feeder had its own towpath and could handle canal boats.

A number of businesses located along the Fox River Feeder in Ottawa to use the water power the feeder provided. Just south of the I&M, the I&M Canal Commission itself maintained a boat yard just a short distance from the canal itself. The 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of downtown Ottawa shows that the H.C. King Box Factory, Pump and Cooper Shop’s machinery was powered by the feeder’s flow, as was the J.A. Koeppen Machine Shop, William Colwell’s plow works, the Grove and Hess Feed Mill and Cider Press, and the D. Sanderson Refrigerator Factory. And those were just the ones located immediately south of the I&M. From there, the feeder—also called the lateral canal—flowed due south to two blocks north of the Illinois River where it made a 90-degree turn to the east to enter the Fox River again. Along its length were located dozens of businesses from grain elevators to lumber yards to warehouses to factories of various kinds.

The Fox River Feeder’s course from Dayton through Ottawa on its way to empty back into the Fox River. (Click to enlarge)

The problem with the feeder canals is that the region’s floods—called freshets at the time—regularly damaged the dams that fed them. And when that happened, it wasn’t only the I&M that sustained losses but so did the businesses that had located along the feeders.

In March 1873, for instance, the ice went out of the Fox River suddenly after a cold winter. The thick ice rampaged down the river demolishing bridges and dams, including the dam at Dayton that fed the Fox River Feeder. The March 27, 1873 Kendall County Record reprinted the account of the effects the disaster had on Ottawa:


The ice that went out of Fox River recently gave the manufacturing interests of Ottawa a serious blow, two dams being damaged to such an extent as to stop many establishments for a short time. The [Ottawa] Republican of the 20th says:

The dam across the Fox River at Dayton, owned by the State, is to all appearances a total wreck. Some ten days ago a part of the comb of this dam on the east end, about a third the length of the dam and apparently about two feet in depth, went off. The damage seemed to be trifling but on Friday last a field of ice came down with such force that it racked the whole structure downstream and as the ice moved off leaving the water clear, there seemed to but little left of the old Dayton dam. The river fell almost instantly, and the water of the feeder [canal] turned in its course and ran back into the Fox river, leaving the Dayton mills and factory without propelling power.

This dam was built some years before the opening of the canal, which took place in 1848. John Green had constructed a dam at the same place to create a water power, with which he ran a flouring and saw mill. The State having established that point as the place from which to take water from the Fox river to feed the canal, made an arrangement with Green by which he was secured in the perpetual use of water power much greater than has ever yet been used. This dam was built of timber crib work, just above the old one, and in the filling up, both the old and new were consolidated making it a very strong structure. It has stood many shocks in the years that have intervened, with slight repairs and little care. It will of course be rebuilt as soon as the stage of water will permit, as canal navigation can hardly be carried on without the use of this feeder. In the meantime, serious inconvenience and loss will be suffered by the numerous manufacturers of Ottawa whose mills are propelled by water from the “side cut” and hydraulic basin, which are supplied by this feeder.

The Fox River Feeder was maintained as long as the I&M needed it. But after the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, there was no longer a need for the I&M or its network of feeders and aqueducts. Businesses that once looked to the feeders for flowing water to power them had long since started relying on steam and then electrical power.

By 1931, the Fox River Feeder had become an unsightly, dangerous, economic liability through Ottawa’s downtown. The city hired workers unemployed by the accelerating Great Depression to fill in the feeder, thus ending a lively era of northern Illinois transportation history and one of the city’s links to the region’s canal age.

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