Tag Archives: Interurban trolley

At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

While the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, a ground beef patty served on bread or a bun, may have been invented in a small town diner in Texas (views vary; strongly), it’s pretty much a sure thing that the cheeseburger was invented right here in Illinois.

When Kendall County’s first pioneer farmers arrived, they found a land of almost inconceivable richness where opportunity seemed limitless. The problem was, that while the Fox Valley’s rich, deep topsoil grew extremely bountiful crops, it was difficult to get all that grain, livestock, and other farm produce to a market where someone would pay for it.

Grain was expensive to ship overland due to the region’s truly awful road system. Until well after the Civil War, most rural roads (and most of them in small towns, too) were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie that turned into bottomless quagmires after every rain and following the spring melt of every winter’s snow.

1860-hog-drive

Until better roads were available, the easiest way to get hogs and cattle to the Chicago market was to drive them there overland.

But grain can be turned into many other useful things, such as cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. Livestock, unlike a bushel of grain, can walk to market all by itself, so until sufficient rail service was available, cattle and hog drives were not uncommon sights as the Fox Valley’s livestock farmers got their animals to the Chicago or Joliet market.

Grain can not only feed cattle destined to be turned into steaks and roasts, of course, but can also be turned into milk, and the products derived from it.

Before the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was pushed northeast from Streator to Geneva in 1870, dairying in Kendall County was important, but the county’s relative distance from larger markets meant problems in getting raw milk to market. When the new rail line opened, that helped ease some of the problems getting milk to market, but trains ran on tight schedules that didn’t necessarily match the needs of dairy farmers. And the line was still distant from many farmers, meaning that trips over the terrible roads of the era still meant large investments in time and labor.

oswego-chesse-and-butter-factory

W.H. McConnell’s Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory opened in the spring of 1877. One of its first major contracts for butter and cream was with Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel.

And that’s when America’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. If it was proving too difficult to get milk to markets in larger towns, why not create milk-processing factories nearer to the farms that were producing it?

One of the first to fill this need was W.H. McConnell. In 1870, a brewery had been built between the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) and the new railroad right-of-way just north of Oswego’s village limits and atop a strong natural spring. Despite the area’s large German population, however, the brewery was a bust. But McConnell figured it would make the perfect location for a creamery, a factory to turn raw milk into butter, cheese, and other related products. It was adjacent to the railroad line, so getting his plant’s products to market would be easy.

The brewery’s access to a cold, clear fresh water spring offered natural cooling for safe storage of the newly produced cheese and butter, but just to help Mother Nature out a bit, Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting and storage facility about a half mile north of the creamery site in 1874.

So W.H. McConnell & Company opened for business early in 1877. Within months, the changeover from beer to butter was complete. By March 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped, in a measure, the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

1873-grand-pacific-hotel-chicagoBy May 9, 1878, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Oswego’s creamery had gotten the contract to supply a major Chicago hotel: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

The Grand Pacific Hotel was a big deal, in more ways than one. Destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1873, covering the entire block bounded by Clark, LaSalle, Quincy, and Jackson streets. That McConnell was able to get the butter and cream contract was a real coup.

1904 NaAuSay Creamery.jpg

NaAuSay Township’s cooperative creamery was located a good distance from any town, and served dozens of area dairy farmers.

Other creameries soon opened throughout Kendall County. In those pre-electricity days, they were powered by small steam engines, meaning they could be located about anywhere—and they were—from rural NaAuSay Township, where today’s Walker Road crosses the AuSable Creek; to Plattville, Lisbon; and Millington. On the south side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—McConnell opened another creamery at Hydraulic and Main Street, and he also opened one at Bristol Station on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line. The Palace Car Creamery Company’s creamery and butter factory was located at the northeast corner of Hydraulic Avenue and Main Street.

With sufficient markets available, Kendall County farmers responded by greatly expanding their dairy herds. In 1870, the U.S. Government’s farm census reported there were just under 6,000 dairy cows on county farms. By 1880, the number ballooned to 9,000 before topping out in 1890 with 9,500 dairy cattle.

In order to get milk to the creameries, farmers first hauled their own, but within a short time, some farmers figured there was money to be made hauling their neighbors’ milk to local creameries.

Graham farm scene

Fred Graham, sitting in the wagon at left, was one of the Kendall County farmers who earned additional money by hauling milk from dairy farms to the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory in Oswego.

In 1900, the construction of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Company’s interurban line down the Fox River from Aurora to Yorkville offered a handier way to transport farmers’ milk to creameries in Aurora. In addition, the development of efficient motorized trucks and the subsequent improvement of roads also made it easier to get milk to markets once considered far too distant.

The changes in transportation led to the disappearance of the small local creameries that dotted the rural landscape since larger dairies could pay more money for farmers’ milk and were more profitable.

kraft-cheese-box

Joseph Kraft packed his patented processed American Cheese in 2 and 5 pound wooden boxes that were shipped all over the world. The cheese melted nicely, leading a nameless Kraft worker to invent the cheeseburger sometime in the 1920s.

And with all the dairy products being manufactured also came innovation. Chicago dairyman Joseph Kraft patented a method of processing cheese into a product that was not only more stable than the familiar cheddar, Swiss, and brick cheeses (meaning it could be stored and shipped far easier), but the process could be industrialized with Kraft’s cheese being mass produced. His new “American Cheese” was packed in tin cans and six million pounds of the stuff was shipped off to help feed Allied armies during World War I.

It proved a popular product here at home, too, especially after cooks found that American Cheese melted nicely without separating like natural cheeses did. At the Kraft Cheese labs in Chicago, they continually experimented with ways to use this new cheese product. One of those innovations was to top a hamburger with melted American Cheese.

And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.

Kendall County’s love of dairying gradually cooled. Managing a dairy herd is hard, labor-intensive work. Cows have to be milked twice daily, 365 days a year. Hand-milking was hard, but ingenuity soon produced milking machines. But those, and all their myriad parts, have to be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Milk cans have to be cleaned, and the raw milk has to be properly stored so that it’s fresh when the driver picks it up to take to the city dairy where it is processed.

The big dairies merged, and what farmers called the “Milk Trusts” came to dominate the industry. Farmers fought back during the “Milk Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gradually, like all other agricultural endeavors, dairying became a specialized. Fewer farmers wanted to bother with the labor and expense involved. By 1900, the number of dairy cows on county farms had declined by a couple hundred to 9,300 from its 1890 peak. But by 1950, the number of county milk cows had been halved to 4,000 and nine years later had been nearly halved again to 2,300. During the last farm census in 2012, there were so few dairy farmers in Kendall County that the number of cows wasn’t even reported.

Today, dairy barns still dot Kendall County’s landscape, but virtually none of them are used for the purpose for which they were built. Instead, milk is produced on large corporate-owned dairy farms that are completely divorced from the communities where their milk is sold in stores.

There’s probably more truth than ever before in the old joke about city folks being asked where milk comes from and answering “The grocery store.” And I think we can all agree that it might be a good idea to give a tip of the old hat to Joseph Kraft the next time we bite into a nice juicy cheeseburger.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

How the interurban trolley changed one family’s lives…

Tomorrow, Saturday, we’ve invited Bill Molony, president of the Black Hawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, over to the Little White School museum to speak on the history of the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Electric Railroad. The program starts at 1 p.m. and the museum is located at 72 Polk Street—the Y between Jackson and Polk—just a couple blocks from downtown Oswego.

From 1904 to 1926, residents along the 20-mile corridor running beside modern U.S. Route 30 from Joliet to Aurora, not to mention the rural residents living along the route, had access to a relatively efficient, privately-owned mass transit line.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line's 20-mile corridor.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line’s 20-mile corridor.

The JP&A’s interurban service linked residents along its tracks to shopping, school, and jobs they would not have been able to otherwise enjoy. Travelers boarded the cars at various stops from downtown Joliet to downtown Plainfield to downtown Aurora, as well at rural stops at Normantown and Wolf’s Crossing, plus at other more informal stops along the way if passengers were waiting.

The JP&A has a special place in my family’s history. In 1920, my grandparents, for a number of reasons, decided to leave their comfortable home on Aurora’s East Side, right in the middle of the German-speaking “Dutchtown” area, to take up farming. They rented an 80-acre farm from Louis McLaren with one of the most dilapidated houses in that farming neighborhood, and took their three children along on their new adventure.

My grandfather, a cautious soul, decided to keep his job at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s sprawling shops on Aurora’s North Broadway, and so began three or so years of commuting to work five days a week. According to his pay books, he was a supervisor of a crew of carpenters who built boxcars and cabooses in the Aurora shops. They worked five 10-hour days, with Saturday and Sunday off.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

Every morning, rain or shine, my grandfather walked the mile and a half east on Simons Road to the JP&A tracks, where he caught the interurban to downtown Aurora and his job. And every evening after 10 hours of demanding labor, he caught the interurban back to the country for his mile and a half walk home. On weekends he caught up with chores and on the other days of the week, my grandmother ran the farm, milking cows, keeping chickens, feeding cattle an hogs, plus the thousand and one other things farm wives during that era had to do. Fortunately, the kids, my mother and my Aunt Evelyn, attended school a half mile east at Tamarack School, so they were near to hand, and it was an easy walk.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted as a young child  had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl, however, was another thing altogether. Intellectually gifted—he taught himself how to read—Earl’s body was twisted and bent by a cruel childhood disease. My grandparents tried everything they could think of, including taking him to specialists in Aurora and Chicago. The JP&A was their lifeline; my grandmother would carry her son the mile and a half to the trolley stop and then ride it to doctors’ appointments. Nothing, however, seemed to do much good and despite his intelligence, he was condemned to spend his life in special wheelchairs my grandfather made for him as he listened and learned from the radio, his magazine subscriptions, and the books he received as gifts.

My grandmother also used the JP&A to travel to her parents’ home here in Oswego—today’s Matile Manse. Built in 1908 by my great-grandparents upon their retirement from farming, the house is about three-quarters of a mile from the interurban trolley stop in downtown Oswego. Grandma would carry Earl down to the JP&A, and take that into Aurora, transfer to the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Valley Railroad’s trolley car for the six-mile trip down to Oswego. Then she’d carry him from the trolley stop downtown to her parents’ house. Occasionally, a friendly black lady who lived about a third of the way between the trolley stop and my great grandparents’ house would help carry Earl. My grandmother said the lady really enjoyed talking with Earl, who, as are many differently-abled people, was a keen observer of life in general.

The JP&A folded in 1924, and that may have helped persuade my grandfather to give up his job with the CB&Q. In its place, he farmed as well as did considerable carpentry work for the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly Scots farmers.

Meanwhile, about 1922 or so, my father had decided his job as a steeplejack at a glass factory in Ottawa, Illinois was pretty much a dead-end He heard there was farm work to be had up in Aurora, so he packed his suitcase, and headed north from Ottawa on the Chicago, Ottawa & Peoria interurban to Joliet. There he transferred to the JP&A, managing to get to downtown Aurora, just as he’d planned, on a Saturday night. During that era, farmers from miles around did their shopping in downtown Aurora on Saturday night, the only night all the stores were open. He later said he walked down the street until he saw someone who definitely looked like a farmer, and asked if he needed a hired man. No, the fellow said, but he knew someone who did, and so my dad began working for the McMicken family in Wheatland Township.

My grandfather helped do a lot of repair and renovation work at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church—so nicknamed because it was established right in the middle of a settlement of Stewarts, Glmours, McMickens, McLarens, Clows, Findlays, and others who had immigrated in the 1850s, mostly from Ayreshire, to the rich Illinois prairie. During one such project, my dad accompanied the McMicken family he was working for to help out, and he caught my grandfather’s eye. “There’s a new young man at McMickens, and he’s a worker,” my grandfather told the family that night at supper. In my grandfather’s parlance, calling somebody a worker was about the highest praise possible. Eventually, my parents met at another church function, and here I am today, thanks, at least in part, to the JP&A.

As part of their physical plant, the JP&A also built Electric Park at Plainfield, a hugely popular summertime entertainment destination on the banks of the DuPage River. It boasted a number of attractions that included a dance hall, a bowling alley, a thrilling “shoot the chutes” into the river, and even a passenger paddle boat, but closed down when the interurban line collapsed in 1924. However, one building from Electric Park remained right through my childhood. The large octagonal auditorium building saw service as a dance hall and then during the 1950s as a popular roller-skating rink. Each Thursday, the Oswegoland Park District would rent the rink, and we’d either take a bus over or have our parents drive us and our friends there to participate in an extremely odd ritual. Young males would nerve themselves up to ask a girl to skate with them, and they’d hold hands while trying to keep maximum distance between them as they teetered around the rink, with the skate staff effortlessly gliding backwards and forwards through the unsteady crowds, all accompanied by organ music. Eventually, the rink came on hard times and was then totally destroyed by the fearsome Plainfield tornado of 1992.

So come on over to the Little White School Saturday and hear more of the story of the JP&A and its impact on the area. For some of us, it had a very great impact indeed.

Admission donation for the program, which is aimed at visitors age 16 and older, is $5. Proceeds benefit the operations and mission of the Little White School Museum.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation