Tag Archives: invention

1870s Oswego dispatched lighting rod salesmen across the Midwest

With the introduction of Covid vaccines, science is getting a bit of a shot in the arm after four years of insistence that opinions—no matter how nuts—are every bit as valid as actual facts. I won’t go into all the strangeness that’s resulted in so much modern science and fact denial here, but I will note that innovation and invention was once a national mania that filtered right down to the local level.

Like many rural areas, Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation in the 19th Century. In fact, Oswego boasted it’s own mini-Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison’s famed invention and innovation lab, operated by the Richards brothers in their hardware store.

One of those popular innovations that became extremely popular throughout the Midwest was lightning rods, popularity driven because of the constant threat of fire posed by the region’s frequent thunderstorms to buildings both in town and out on the farm, particularly the large barns of the era. Most small towns had little or no firefighting capability, and farms had none at all. As a result, a lightning strike could mean ruin for a building owner.

A basic lightning rod installation consists of the rod atop a building connected with a thick copper wire buried in the ground.

Ben Franklin is generally given credit for inventing the first practical lightning rod system. In 1752, Franklin developed the first lightning rod as part of his famous experiments with electricity. As developed, the Franklin Rod—as it was called—consisted of a metal rod mounted on the highest point of a building’s roof that was then, by running a wire from the rod down to the ground, grounded. The energy of a lightning bolt striking the rod was harmlessly diverted into the ground instead of causing the building to burst into flame.

On the largely treeless prairies of Illinois lightning strikes were a constant threat. As the June 8, 1871 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “In the storm of Sunday afternoon the barn of William Ladd was struck by lightning and consumed with pretty much all its contents, including two new wagons, reaper, mower, planter, harnesses and nearly everything required on a farm; also upwards of 300 bushels of grain, a part of which and also one of the wagons belonged to Abe Emmons, who upon his removal in the spring to Amboy left it there in store. Of the other contents a large share belonged to N.T. Ferris, who is working the farm. The entire loss will exceed $3,000.”

So lightning rods became a fairly big business starting in the mid-19th Century. Herman Melville’s short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published in the August 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, recounts the fictional interaction between the story’s narrator and an inventive and ambitious lightning rod salesman. A humorous tale filled with plenty of Melville allegory, it’s interesting for its treatment of a trade long gone from the American scene: the traveling lightening rod salesman.

Nineteenth Century Kendall County was one many hotbeds of invention, with all sorts of ingenious tinkering going on. And for whatever reason, Oswego seems to have been a center of lightning rod invention, manufacture, and sales. A number of firms annually sent out teams of lightning rod salesmen like Melville’s protagonist that ranged all over the Midwest and that provided employment for a number of local residents.

According to one county history, lightning rods were first introduced in Kendall County by Oswego storekeeper Garret H. Teller in 1844. Although Teller didn’t manufacture his own rods but was a wholesaler, he continued to sell lightning rods for the rest of his life, while taking on a number of partners during the years.

As the 1870s began, lightning rods were a growing business. According to the business directory in the 1870 atlas and plat book of Kendall County, along with Henry W. Farley (the only manufacturer listed), Oswegoans Teller, William Hoze, and Thomas P. Mullenix were all engaged in selling lightning rods.

Henry Wise Farley (1819-1892), engineer, inventor, businessman. He invented and patented an improved lightning rod in 1869 and manufactured them in Oswego, sending out door-to-door salesmen each spring to a territory that covered all of Illinois, as well as parts of Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Farley was the community’s premier lightning rod manufacturer, although others apparently dabbled in the business. Farley was a former railroad official who worked as a construction engineer on a number of Eastern rail lines. A native of Massachusetts, after his service in the Civil War in Missouri, Farley moved his family north, settling in Oswego.

In the pre-war period, Farley had patented a number of mechanisms, mostly centered around railroad locomotives. But after moving to Oswego sometime before 1869, he put his mind to inventing a variety of items, from an innovative conveyor of people and freight to an improved lightning rod. Farley’s lighting rod proved to be cheaper than the pure copper rods that were the most efficient conductors of lightning bolts, and more effective than the cheaper iron rods economy-minded building owners often favored.

Farley’s big lightning rod innovation was to manufacture an iron rod with a star-shaped cross-section that was then twisted into a spiral shape. The sturdy rods were manufactured with screw threads at top and bottom, allowing them to be connected with a threaded collar creating whatever length of rod was desired.

Farley’s major improvement was to wrap copper wires or strips up the spiral grooves to provide a much better lightning conductor. The spiral grooved iron rod proved much stronger than a similar, soft copper rod. As he noted in his patent application, the star-shaped spiral rod “combines the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and also giving great area of surface.” He was finally granted a patent for the idea in 1869.

By that time, he was already installing them around Oswego and the rest of Kendall County. As early as 1868, the Record reported from Oswego that several residents had contracted with Farley for his new, improved lightning rods. On April 15 of that year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Farley has commenced active operation in the lightning rod business. Several houses in the town were rodded last week, among which are Snook’s, Bunn’s, and Wollenweber’s.”

The great thing about manufacturing and marketing lighting rods was that Mother Nature, in the form of frequent thunderstorms, kept reminding everyone why it was such a good idea to buy and install them—sometimes spectacularly so. On June 28, 1877, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “During Wednesday evening’s storm the barn of Phillip Boessenecker, a large and almost new one, was struck by lightning, causing its consumption by fire with a large lot of hay, farming utensils, and a very good colt. The prominent location of the barn made the fire conspicuous in town and a number went out to it. There had been no rod on it, hence our lightning rodders point now to it as proof of the stupidity of men that don’t have their buildings rodded.”

Even with frequent help from the weather, it was clear that all those lightning rod dealers couldn’t make a living selling just to Kendall County residents. So Farley and the other major lightning rod wholesalers in Oswego began sending teams of salesmen out to hawk their wares to a wide strip of the upper Midwest.

List of lightning rod dealers in Oswego from the 1870 Kendall County plat book and atlas. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was a fortunate time to be recruiting young men for traveling sales jobs because of the number of Civil War veterans looking for decent jobs with travel and a little adventure thrown in.

Generally, the sales teams loaded up brightly painted horsedrawn wagons with their goods and headed out to their territories in mid to late April and then headed to their assigned territories.

As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on April 14, 1870: “The lightning rod establishments are now very busy in getting up and sending out teams. Oliver [Hebert] has got up some very nice looking wagons for them.”

Oliver Hebert ran Oswego’s premier wagon manufactory out of this combination shop (at left in the photo0 and home at the corner of Madison and VanBuren streets. The wagon shop was eventually torn down and the residential part became Oswego’s first funeral home in 1931. Grocery merchant Ken Bohn bought the house in the 1950s. It was destroyed by fire on Jan. 31, 1994. (Little White School Museum photo.

Hebert was Oswego’s premier carriage, road cart, and wagon maker during that era, suggesting the firms weren’t stinting on the quality of their equipment.

Territories for individual companies extended as far north as Minnesota and as far south as southern Illinois and as far west as Iowa. During the sales year, the crews came home to visit their families on summer and early fall holidays, as the July 6, 1871 Record reported from Oswego: “A number of the lightning rod boys came home to spend the Fourth.”

And sometimes they just came home for a visit after a couple months on the road. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 13, 1871: “The lightning rod folks who are and have been home on a visit to their families and friends may be mentioned [include] Boss G.H. Teller; C.L. Murdock, and C.L. Judson.”

Of course, given that the sales forces were mostly comprised of young Civil War veterans, activities weren’t strictly confined to business. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on Oct. 17, 1872: “Charles E. Hubbard went last spring in the Teller company to Wisconsin lightning rodding; it appears however that he did not wholly confine his attention to that business, for he came home one day last week with a wife.”

The sales season generally wrapped up in September as the season for lightning-producing thunderstorms ended.

The county’s era as a center of the Midwest’s lightning rod business was largely over by the 1880s as bigger firms were able to undersell and out-produce smaller companies like Farley’s. But while it lasted, lightning rodding was a business that put Oswego and Kendall County on the region’s business map.


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