Tag Archives: journalism

After 42½ years, no more newspaper deadlines to meet—for the time being…

For the past 42½ years, come every Sunday evening I’m starting to think about a topic for a column—I’ve been writing a weekly column that mostly deals with local history for a weekly newspaper here in Oswego since the early autumn of 1977.

So it seemed more than a bit odd this past Sunday to realize I wasn’t working against any sort of deadline at all. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper group that owns the weekly Oswego Ledger has decided to suspend all their stringers—including columnists like me—“for the time being.” Not sure if that means forever, but given the newspaper business’s on-going financial problems it wouldn’t surprise me.

I started writing a local history column I called “Epochs” back in 1977, which my old elementary school classmate Dave Dreier published in the Fox Valley Sentinel.

1949 Oswego Ledger flagBack in those days, Oswego had two weekly newspapers. The Oswego Ledger was the oldest paper, having been started by Ford Lippold in 1949. Ford published the Ledger on a Mimeograph machine in his basement, with his whole family participating in assembling each week’s edition. The Ledger was a local institution that, while it was a free distribution weekly duplicated on tan 8-1/2 x 11” paper, covered the local news pretty professionally. In March 1965, Ann and Don Krahn bought the Ledger and turned it into an offset printed tabloid-sized paper, still published weekly but on a subscription basis.

1949 Oswego Ledger front pageI lost touch with Dave Dreier after his folks moved up to North Aurora when we were in sixth grade. As an adult, he had been involved in a variety of business interests before he came back to the Oswego area and went to work for the Krahns at the Ledger. Shortly thereafter, Dave and his friend Steve Keierlieber decided to start a competing Oswego weekly they named the Fox Valley Sentinel. Their business plan called for them to not only cover Oswego, but also Kendall County government as well as expanding coverage north to Montgomery, Aurora, the East and West Aurora school districts, and the Kane County Board. Their first issue was published in 1974, and from the beginning the competition between the Sentinel and the Ledger was fierce.

As for myself, I had no idea I could write until my wife and I volunteered to help produce a county history during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. Until the county history was published, the commission turned out a series of monographs on local historical topics (two of which I co-wrote and two of which I helped edit) as well as the hard covered history itself in which I was responsible for writing a couple chapters and helping edit others. The books and monographs proved popular and helped fund the county’s celebration.

1982 Bartlett House cropped

The Fox Valley Sentinel office was located in the historic Bartlett House on Main Street in Oswego. Built about 1837, it may be the oldest house in Oswego.

By 1977, I was forced to retire from my job due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, and was looking for something I could do at home to earn a little money. Since the history we’d produced during the Bicentennial proved pretty popular I figured maybe I could write a local history column. I hadn’t seen Dave for nearly 20 years, but when I stopped down at the Sentinel office, we hit it right off again. I pitched my idea to him about writing a column on local history topics. Unlike a lot of budding columnists, I at least had some published examples of my writing to show. And it didn’t hurt that we were old, old friends.

Did I think there’d be enough material to do more than a few columns, he wondered. Yes, I said, I thought there’d be enough for several. Well, write three and bring them back and Dave said he’d see. Which I did, and which he did, and he offered me the gig.

“What do you want to call the column,” he wondered. “It’s got to have a title.” I had no idea, really, it turning out that coming up with headlines is something I’m really bad at (as you can tell if you’ve read much of this lame blog). But I finally suggested “Epochs” had a sort of historical ring to it, and he thought that would work. My first piece was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1977. And except for the odd hospital stay and various non-hospitalized illnesses I’ve been writing a column a week ever since.

Sentinel Flag 1978Dave prevailed on me sometime in 1978 to cover some of the Sentinel’s news beats. I reminded him I had no journalism experience other than writing my “Epochs” column, to which he replied that he didn’t have any, either, and so what? And after witnessing the horrible political news coverage during the past few decades, I have to admit that my one-time awe of J-school grads has pretty much disappeared.

Newswriting, Dave explained as we sat in his cluttered Sentinel office, isn’t much different than writing a history column. The writing should be clear, accurate, and fair. Write news stories like you’re explaining the topic to your parents, he suggested. Then pulling a crumpled envelope out of the overflowing wastebasket next to his desk, he drew an upside-down pyramid on the back with a blue editing pen and explained, “This is the inverted pyramid. You write your stories like an inverted pyramid Put the important stuff up front, and less important stuff farther down so I can cut the less important parts if we’re tight on space. It’s really not difficult.”

And I found that after telling readers historical stories I’d researched for a while, writing news stories wasn’t difficult—but it was challenging. Get a date wrong in a historical piece by a couple years, and who would know or care? But getting a decimal point wrong in a tax story and a LOT of people cared. Since I’d grown up in Oswego, a lot of the people on boards and commissions had known me since I was a little kid, and they weren’t the least bit shy of collaring me at the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station to let me know what they thought about stories in the most recent edition.

I’d always disliked math, but after school I’d found myself working for a company where all I did all day was math, using a giant, startlingly noisy mechanical Frieden calculator. The main thing I took away from that job was memorizing the decimal equivalents of fractions all the way up to 32nds. So it was actually a relief of sorts when I was forced to retire from doing math all day. But in writing local news, I found I was back doing lots of math once again, figuring percentages of property tax increases, working on local taxing agency budgets, writing census stories, trying to explain school test scores—you name it.

By the summer of 1980, Dave had come to the conclusion that the Oswego area’s advertising base really couldn’t support two weekly papers. By that time, Jeff and Kathy Farren had added the Ledger to their small Kendall County Record, Inc. chain, joining joined the Kendall County Record and the Plano Record. Dave and Jeff talked things over down at the Oswego American Legion bar and Dave agreed to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens. The Farrens merged the two papers, with the new paper named the Ledger-Sentinel.

Ledger flag2000Along with adding newswriting to my part-time job, I’d also kept writing my weekly column and when the Farrens bought the Sentinel, they asked me if I’d come on board as the new paper’s part-time editor, photographer, reporter, janitor, whatever. And they asked if I’d continue writing my column. Jeff and Kathy didn’t care for the name—neither did I—so we decided to change it to “Reflections,” and “Reflections” it’s remained right up until today.

I retired from the news business in March 2008, but I agreed to continue writing “Reflections” every week. When the Farrens decided to retire in 2015, they sold the paper to a large newspaper group. I was asked to continue writing my column. The paper’s name was soon changed back to the Oswego Ledger, but I continued writing “Reflections” for each edition. Until last week.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The author at work at the Kendall County Record office on a summer Wednesday morning in 1989, transferring files from his TRS-80 laptop to a Mac so they can be edited and run out for paste-up.

The newspaper business has been in serious financial trouble for years, partly because of changes in technology and partly because too many news organizations–especially at the national level–seem to have lost their way, turning management over to accountants instead of news people and allowing their news judgment to be influenced by focus groups and other such corporate-influenced nonsense. And now the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be adding to the existing problem in a way that stands to destroy so many of the weekly papers that still manage to survive, the ones that cover the births and deaths and marriages and local government, school news, and other information communities rely on. And that will be a real tragedy.

Weeklies have withstood a number of serious challenges, especially in small towns where farming was once the mainstay of the surrounding region. Technology and scientific crop advances have drastically reduced the number of farmers needed to till the soil, and that has had major negative impacts on the population of the small towns that were interdependent on farming. Fading populations have led to disappearing churches, social, and civic organizations, and declining school enrollments. The invasion of rural America by big chains like Walmart and the dollar stores has largely destroyed whatever locally-owned businesses remained. And with that went the advertising base that once supported local newspapers. For years, the big chains refused to advertise in weeklies, preferring direct mail instead. Hundreds of communities lost their churches, their schools through consolidation, their downtown business districts, and, as a result, the newspapers that once helped tie those communities together.

2020 Ledger flagI’m hoping against hope that doesn’t happen to Shaw Media, the company that owns the Oswego Ledger and the other papers in the KendallCountyNOW newspaper group. Communities need local newspapers to make sure everyone’s informed about what’s going on. After all, who has time to raise a family and go to all the local governmental meetings that take place throughout the month, from the village, park, and library boards, to the county board, the fire district board, and all the others?

As for me, I’ll continue collecting local history and interpreting it down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum before it all gets thrown in the nearest Dumpster. And I’ll also continue to preserve and publish as much local history as I can by here at History on the Fox to preserve it, at least as long as this electronic format lasts, while I wait to see what happens to the Oswego Ledger and my old place on each week’s opinion page.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

When express riders carried the U.S. Mail at a gallop

The Pony Express became the stuff of American legend, mostly thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his world-famous Wild West shows.

Businessman William Russell established the Pony Express in April 1860 as a publicity stunt he hoped would help him win a contract to carry the U.S. Mail by stagecoach from Independence, Mo. to California. In reality, Russell’s ploy lasted only 18 months, and never carried the U.S. Mail. Rather Russell’s venture was a private express service. As one of his riders later put it, the Pony Express was a stunt, “a put-up job from start to finish.”

Image result for pony express

The Pony Express is one of the most enduring legends of the Old West. Unfortunately, most of the legend is historical bunk.

Despite the Pony Express’s short, ineffective run, thanks to Buffalo Bill (who as William Cody was one of the young men who rode for the company) and his entertaining wild west shows, the Pony Express has gone down in American history as a noble effort to provide speedy transcontinental communications. In fact, since 1907, it has been the subject of 15 movies, two made for TV movies, and a 1959 television series.

Although most of us seem to believe Russell’s effort was the first of its kind, people living at the time knew it was not. In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s. And unlike Russell’s PR stunt, it actually carried the U.S. Mail.

Designed primarily to carry financial news linking important, but far-distant cities in the West such as New Orleans and St. Louis with Eastern markets, the Express Mail had a couple branches. One of those Express Mail branches passed through our state of Illinois on the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), connecting Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill.

John McLean, postmaster general, 1823-1829

Express Mail differed from the regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who was required to make the best time possible. Unlike the contracts for carrying the regular mail by stagecoach and wagon, Express Mail carriers could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Actually, Express Mail service was sporadically established at many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders carried messages during the colonial period, then after the Revolution, most expresses were part of the military communications network.

The need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service became apparent in the spring of 1825. When a fast sailing ship arrived from England, New York cotton merchants, learned that cotton prices on the London market had skyrocketed. They then bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the news of the price jump. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news so they could buy all the cotton they could find at low prices. When they sold the cheap cotton at the high prices in London, they made hefty profits. The cotton merchants who weren’t let in on the deal were not happy.

Postmaster General John McLean, who served from 1823-1829, vowed such a thing would never happen again, and prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” meaning any messages carried by regular mail contractors, but not carried in the official portmanteau. During that era, the U.S. Mail was strictly defined as matter that was carried in the official portmanteaus, large canvas sacks with special locks. Mail contractors were threatened with loss of their contracts if they informally carried any messages that weren’t the mail. And that was a big deal, since without a mail contract, a stagecoach company simply couldn’t be profitable. In fact, at one time if a mail contractor lost his contract, he was obliged to sell his coaches, horses, and other equipment to the successful bidder.

In an effort to get the most important economic news delivered as quickly as possible, McLean decided to establish an Express Mail to travel what was called the Great Mail Line from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year. It would be up to one of his successors to create a true Express Mail service.

Image result for amos kendall

Amos Kendall, postmaster general, 1835-1840

In 1835, Amos Kendall took over the job of Postmaster General for President Andrew Jackson following a scandal that erupted when Postmaster General William Barry, who was not only incompetent, but also allowed politics to enter the mail carriage contract system. Barry’s corrupt incompetence drove the previously financially healthy postal service into bankruptcy.

Enter Kendall—our county’s namesake. Kendall was a former Tennessee newspaper publisher and crony of Jackson who turned out to have a genius for organization. In taking over from the corrupt Barry, he instituted a wide range of reforms, which, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal revenue surpluses.

Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service carrying regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the New York to New Orleans route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news. During that era, newspapers were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing the news of governmental happenings was spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, another express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, express riders traveled from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to its terminus at Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie from Terre Haute to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis. Each stage of the trip was made daily by express riders.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. Thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major improvements to the nation’s road system, the regular mail had become nearly as fast as the express riders. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

While overland travel was quickly improving the speed of the mails, the nation was also on the cusp of a telecommunications revolution that would, in less than a decade, supersede all existing communications technology. Samuel F.B. Morse invented his electric telegraph in the 1830s, and had largely perfected by 1845. In March of that year Morse and his partner Alfred Vail hired none other than former Postmaster General Amos Kendall (who’d left government service in 1840) to manage their business. Kendall, no fool he, agreed to work for a ten percent stake in the new company, which he incorporated as the Magnetic Telegraph Company. The expansion of telegraph service throughout the nation soon meant that spreading vital economic information was no longer limited to the speed of a horse, but could instead speed along copper wires. It revolutionized communications—which it continues to do to this day.

And Kendall had a hand in that success. After leaving the post office, he tried journalism and went broke (not uncommon even today) and was nearly a subject for debtor’s prison when Samuel F.B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, decided to hire Kendall as their business manager to manage the business of promoting their new telegraph invention. It turned out to be a genius move as Kendall turned his organization skills to promoting the telegraph. And tt ended up making Kendall a multi-millionaire.

Kendall’s Express Mail, as a stopgap while the nation improved its transportation infrastructure and communications technology, was a success, keeping the nation tied together via the most sophisticated information technology the era offered. And it might be interesting to note that sending a one-page letter by Express Mail from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois in 1837 cost 75 cents—a time when land in Illinois was selling for $1.25 per acre. That certainly puts our seemingly endless modern postal rate increases into some historical perspective.

 

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Filed under Business, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Transportation

Tiptoeing perilously close to self-praise…

Self-praise, my mother used to say, stinks. Earthy, but descriptive, and it’s something that’s stuck with me all my life. So it’s probably not an accident that I view the current occupant of the White House with more than a little disdain.

And then, as if my mother’s stern injunction wasn’t enough, I married someone who has a lot of Quaker in her background, and who is so opposed to blowing her own horn that she’s still never even read two local history booklets the two of us wrote back in 1975.

All that said, I now intend to blow my own horn a little, although I’m not ready to go so far as to call it self-praise because, you know, that’s bad.

Here it goes: I earned a first place in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s 2018 Newspaper Contest for the best local column in the non-daily paper classification. The awards were announced Oct. 18 at NINA’s annual awards dinner at Northern Illinois University.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

One of the columns that proved to be NINA award-winners concerned discovering the exact date of this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. An original copy of the photo is in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield and Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

My “Reflections” column has been appearing weekly in Oswego’s weekly paper, the Ledger-Sentinel (corporate changed the name back to the Oswego Ledger a while ago, but I like the old name), since July 1980 when Jeff and Kathy Farren talked me into becoming the editor of the newly combined Oswego Ledger and Fox Valley Sentinel. Although I retired as the editor (and also a beat reporter—weekly newspaper folks do everything from photography to writing obits) of the Ledger-Sentinel back in 2008—I agreed to continue doing my weekly local history column, because it’s fun and I always enjoy a chance to talk history, even if I’m only talking to myself. It now also appears in several other Shaw Media newspapers on an irregular basis as well as the four papers they own here in Kendall County.

For the annual NINA contest, several columns have to be submitted written during the contest year, and this year, my editor, John Etheredge, sent in four of them including the Feb. 1 one on George Washington’s slave wedding gift and a similar one affecting a local family; the Jan. 29 piece on the Great Millbrook Bank Robbery; my May 25 update on the Nathan Hughes photo (he was a black Civil War veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment); and my Sept. 14 piece on how standardized testing in in public schools is virtually eliminating the study and appreciation of local history.

The contest is judged (mostly) by the profs in the journalism department at Northern Illinois University, which gives it a nice academic aura. The person who judged the non-daily column entries had this to say about “Reflections”: “Writing about history is one thing, and writing about now is another, but tying history to the present in a compelling way is a tall order, and Roger Matile does this very well.”

Which made me feel pretty good, because that’s what I try to do just about every week. It’s good to know that a disinterested third party thinks what I think I’m doing seems to be working. And I also get a spiffy framed certificate to hang on my brag wall here at History Central.

Hope you didn’t get too upset, mom…

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

When it came to crime, it really was the “Roaring ’20s” in Kendall County…

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a period of history by its nickname. Sometimes not so much. For instance, the “Gay ‘90s” definitely were not happy and carefree, while the “Roaring ‘20s” definitely were all of that—and more.

The decade of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in the nation’s history. Here in Kendall County, during a period of just a couple weeks, every bank failed and the repercussions drove numerous business owners and farmers into bankruptcy. The balance of the decade, far from the carefree picture in our minds of young women and men riding their bicycles built for two, was a grim climb back to financial solvency.

The “Roaring ‘20s,” on the other hand, were just that. Economic growth was stratospheric (fueled in part by all those World War I Liberty Bonds), newly available economical and dependable automobiles were creating an astonishingly mobile society, and even small town America was seeing a slice of the pie.

But while some areas of the economy were booming—the stock market in particular—other areas definitely were not. The farm depression that followed World War I was deepening, and that had serious effects in largely rural counties like Kendall. In addition, the approval of the 18th Amendment, which took affect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was having a negative effect on small towns that relied on saloon licenses for much of their municipal revenue.

In the case of nationwide prohibition of alcohol, however, the citizenry started to push back almost immediately. The original physical opposition to Prohibition began at the local level; it would take a couple years for crime to become organized enough to take over bootlegging on a big scale.

Here in Kendall County, the Roaring ‘20s kicked off with the robbery of the State Bank of Newark in October. Rural banks had been favorites of robbers for years, but starting in 1920, the means and methods of the crimes began to change, primarily by the addition of automobiles as getaway vehicles. In the Newark case, a familiar face was on hand when the matter got to court. Fred Stuppy had been sent to prison a few years before for his role in robbing the Millbrook bank.

It was suddenly occurring to local officials that they were seriously under equipped to handle what seemed to be a growing wave of crime. Criminals had become more mobile as better roads and better cars came available, and they were often better armed than local constables and sheriffs.

As the Kendall County Record editorialized on Nov. 21, 1920: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Two years later, the General Assembly would create the Illinois State Police to help combat the rising tide of criminality in rural areas.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

Oswego’s Liberty Garage in 1927 after it’s purchase by Earl Zentmyer, who turned it into the village’s Ford dealership. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that local law enforcement wasn’t already trying their best, and sometimes finding themselves in perilous circumstances. In late April 1921, James Joslyn shot and killed West Chicago Chief of Police George Reihm while escaping from the attempted theft of lumber. Joslyn was working on an addition to his house and decided to get the material by robbing a lumber yard, killing Reihm when he got in the way. Joslyn kept one step ahead of the law for the next few months, eventually winding up in Oswego, where he and his wife and small son camped in Watts Cutter’s woods off South Main Street while he worked at the Liberty Garage. Although Joslyn was a good worker, Liberty Garage owner Clyde Lewis became suspicious when Joslyn showed up with a brand new Ford coupe wondering what the best way was to remove the serial numbers from the engine.

Yorkville Creamery

The old Yorkville Creamery where Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell shot it out with James Joslyn in 1921. (Little White School Museum collection)

And that’s where the new telecommunications technology came into play. Calls between Lewis, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell, and the Aurora Police Department convinced Hextell that Joslyn was worth questioning at least. And so with Lewis and deputy Frank Wellman in the car, Hextell headed to Yorkville, where Joslyn had been headed. The sheriff caught up to Joslyn at the old creamery building, and got out of his car just as Joslyn walked up to see who was in the car. Seeing the sheriff, Joslyn backed up, turned, and started to run. Hextell shouted for him to stop and fired a warning shot in the air. At that, Joslyn pulled his own pistol and snapped off a hurried shot at Hextell that nearly clipped the sheriff’s ear. Hextell fired in reply, hitting Joslyn in the side, knocking him down. As Hextell, Lewis, and Wellman approached Joslyn, they heard a shot, finding he’d shot himself in the head rather than suffer arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t until Hextell compared notes with other law enforcement agencies that it was found Joslyn had a lengthy criminal record—including that active warrant for the murder of Reihm.

But beside garden variety gunfights, it was Prohibition that was preying on local minds as enterprising folks attempted to find ways around the new law. In October 1922, Hextell arrested J. Busby at his farm near the Five Mile Bridge between Yorkville and Plano for bootlegging. Explained the Kendall County Record: “When Sheriff Hextell served the search warrant he and his assistants found 24 different varieties of ‘booze,’ ranging from ‘home brew’ to cherry cordial.”

On Jan. 10, 1923, Record publisher Hugh Marshall commended the county’s law enforcement establishment: “Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [speakeasies] within its boundaries.”

As it turned out, Marshall’s congratulations were a bit premature, even as the redoubtable Sheriff Hextell was replaced by the new sheriff in town, George Barkley. I’ll let Marshall tell the story of what happened next as recounted in the March 28 Record:

“Sheriff Barkley and his assistants uncovered one of the biggest stills ever found in this part of the country in one place and a large supply of beer and whisky in another in raids made on Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night the sheriff and posse visited Plano where they searched the sample room of Stanley VanKirk and the sandwich room of his brother, Charles VanKirk, better known as “Bumps.” From these two raids, they garnered 80 cases of beer said to have been made in a Joliet brewery, and 14 quarts of supposed “real” whisky. Sheriff Barkley was assisted by former Sheriff Hextell and State Agents Jack Lecker and Pasnik. They had been working about Plano for two weeks. The two VanKirks were brought to Yorkville, where they were arraigned before Judge Larson on Tuesday pled guilty to the charges and were fined. Charles VanKirk paid $500; Stanly VanKirk, $300, and “Pidge” Robbins, who was arrested with them, stood a $100 levy.

“The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.”

Parker, Hawley, Schickler house

Built in 1869 by farmer and business owner George Parker, this ornate Italianate-style home featured a drive-in basement. Later owned by lawyer P.G. Hawley, it was sold to John Schickler, who attempted to run an illegal distilling operation there. (Little White School Museum collection)

While Stan and Bumps VanKirk’s activities didn’t seem to startle anyone too much, the Schickler distilling operation seemed to be a real surprise for local officials. John Schickler was a long-time Oswego businessman and farmer. He built the brick block of stores at the northwest corner of Washington and Main streets in the village’s downtown business district, where he variously operated a saloon and a grocery store. He’d purchased the old Parker-Hawley farm with its huge house that featured a drive-in basement.

Given prohibition, and Schickler’s former career running saloons, he and his son Clarence apparently decided to fulfill a need they figured the community had. John Schickler had always been interested in technology, and had added some of the most up-to-date features to his downtown Oswego building, including a freight elevator and a modern cooler for groceries and meat. So it wasn’t too surprising to see the amount of technology he and Clarence used to distill legal denatured medicinal alcohol into definitely illegal drinking liquor.

In the end, the Schicklers got what amounted to a slap on the wrist and the admonition to go and sin no more, which they apparently took seriously. Unfortunately, they also managed to get the notice of the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reportedly held a cross burning on the front lawn of the Schickler house, something that could have been fueled either by the Schicklers’ bootlegging activities or by the fact that they were Catholics.

John Schickler died in 1931, and Clarence found other things to do. “He was a slot machine king and his wife was a showgirl,” one elderly Oswego resident told me several years ago. Clarence, a few years after the bootlegging adventure, started the Schickler Dairy on the farm, milking 20 cows and housing the bottling operating in same basement where he and his father had distilled bootleg whisky.

At the time law enforcement raided it, the Schicklers’ operation seemed large and sophisticated. But it was paltry by later standards as crime became better organized.

In October 1930, police raided a farm a mile east of Plano and found six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, along with about 4,000 gallons of distilled alcohol, two boilers, and a large amount of yeast. And that was just one of a half-dozen or so operations knocked over during those years.

Despite the hopes of many Americans, the end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t necessarily mean the end of local bootlegging. The biggest haul of federal and local agents took place in October 1936, well after Prohibition ended, as the mob tried to maintain a tax-free supply of alcohol. And the amounts of liquor the operation was about to produce were really astonishing, throwing the Schicklers’ operation back in 1923 definitely in the shade.

Here’s the account from the April 19, 1936 Record:

“Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

“According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the ‘Feds’ on Thursday, April 9.

“The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed ‘the finest plant of its type in this territory.’ The plant was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

“The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this. A wrecking crew from Chicago wrecked the equipment.”

After that, criminals in Kendall County got mostly back to the usual bank robberies and other crimes, including the occasional shoot-out with police.

Too often we read in the paper about some criminal activity or another and think to ourselves how much nicer it would be if we could go back to a simpler time when things weren’t so violent. But the thing is, that time never really existed.

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New marker a Kendall County link to Illinois statehood bicentennial…

For years I wondered what that historical marker on U.S. Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano was, but never bothered to stop and read it. Because, I guess I’m like everybody else: history that’s too close, too local, isn’t as interesting as that in other, far away places.

1816 NW Territory map by Melish

Although it rather oddly moves Lake Michigan a hundred or so miles east, John Melish’s 1816 map showing the Northwest Territory does illustrate Illinois’ originally proposed northern boundary, even  with the bottom of Lake Michigan.

And then it was too late to read it because it disappeared during one of the seemingly unending construction projects along that stretch of road.

But thanks to Linda Fellers, a resident of Crystal Lake of all places, and to the cooperation of the Illinois State Historical Society and the City of Yorkville, the marker has been replaced, this time relocated to a site on Van Emmon Road, avoiding Route 34 construction for all time.

And that gets us to how Fellers’ project to restore the missing marker is a nice compliment to our celebration of Illinois’ bicentennial this year, especially here in Kendall County. Because if the story recounted on the marker had not taken place, I’d be writing this piece in the state of Wisconsin.

The Ordinance of 1787—the Northwest Ordinance—was created to govern the region north and west of the Ohio River, and to eventually bring the region into the Union. The ordinance stipulated the territory was to be divided into not less than three, nor more than five territories that were, after they’d met minimum requirements, to then be admitted to the Union as states with all the privileges and responsibilities as the nation’s original 13 states.

1818 Daniel Pope Cook

Daniel Pope Cook, the young activist editor of the Illinois Intelligencer, Illinois Territory’s most popular newspaper, was a strong  advocate of Illinois statehood.

Illinois became a separate territory in 1809, boasting a population of about 10,000 mostly centered in the southern third of the modern state. But the territory was growing fast, and growth really accelerated after the War of 1812. By 1817, pressure for statehood was growing as many citizens grew increasingly dissatisfied with the absolute veto power over the territorial legislature wielded by the federally appointed territorial governor.

That year, a strong bid for statehood was begun by Daniel Pope Cook (for whom Cook County is named), the fire-eating 20-year-old editor of The Western Intelligencer, one of and the best known of Illinois Territory’s few newspapers. Beginning his campaign with an editorial in the Nov. 20, 1817 Intelligencer, Cook kept up a steady drumbeat of support and agitation for statehood. By Dec. 6 of that year, the territorial house of representatives had adopted a resolution to Congress asking to be admitted as a state.

Though the Northwest Ordinance required that a territory contain at least 60,000 people before admission as a state, Cook’s uncle, Nathaniel Pope, the territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, successfully lobbied to get the minimum decreased to 40,000. As further insurance, Pope worked hard in Congress to assure any census would be managed by an Illinois resident and not a U.S. marshal as required by law.

1818 Nathaniel Pope

Nathaniel Pope, Illinois Territory’s representative in Congress and Cook’s uncle, spearheaded statehood efforts in Washington, D.C. He was the father of Civil War General John Pope.

But even more importantly for Illinois’ future, Pope also lobbied to move the state’s northern boundary north to include 41 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. As originally laid out, the state’s northern boundary would have been set at 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude, which would have put it even with the foot or bottom of Lake Michigan. That would have been on a line that would have placed modern Kendall County’s three northern townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—in Wisconsin.

Rep. Pope, however, had to take many political and economic issues into account as the statehood issue moved forward. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1817 as a slave state, so the pressure was on to admit Illinois as a free state. But that was problematical since the vast majority of the state’s population were emigrants from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other southern slave states. So Pope, and Cook, were determined to make sure that eventually a majority of the population was anti-slavery.

Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817, and those with a bit of foresight could see that when completed, the canal would create a commercial and passenger highway from New York City all the way to the muddy little settlement of Chicago near the foot of Lake Michigan. That would likely result in a tide of settlement from the generally anti-slavery former Middle Colonies and New England directly to northern Illinois. But with the original northern boundary set where it was, all that future northern, anti-slavery growth would end up in Wisconsin Territory, not Illinois.

2018 N Illinois

The red line was the original northern boundary of Illinois proposed in statehood legislation in Washington, D.C. With Cook’s strong backing, Pope lobbied successfully to have the state line moved 61 miles north. That not only secured an economically priceless expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, but also assured a strong anti-slavery population base in northern Illinois.

Further, the existing boundary line cut Illinois off from the water highway that was the Great Lakes. And in an era when roads were either deplorable or simply didn’t exist, water transportation was vital if a state was to thrive economically.

As a result, Pope worked hard—and successfully—to move the new state’s northern boundary north 61 miles to a line at 42 degrees 30 minutes latitude. Pope’s amendment to the statehood legislation passed on April 18, 1818, eight months before Congress officially established the State of Illinois.

2018 Illinois northern boundaryThe boosters of Wisconsin Territory were not amused by the great land grab Pope engineered, and, in fact, unsuccessfully tried to overturn it for years. But the line remained where Pope—with the constant journalistic encouragement and boosterism of Cook—set it. As a result, Illinois gained 14 entire counties, including modern Cook and the City of Chicago that is, and has been, Illinois’ economic engine for the past two centuries—no matter how much us downstaters would like the facts to be different.

And, it turns out, that’s what that historical marker placed along Route 34 between Plano and Yorkville back on April 7, 1965 and which disappeared some years ago was all about. Thanks to Linda Fellers, though, the missing marker, with the story of why you’re reading its text in Illinois instead of Wisconsin, has been resuscitated and emplaced just off Ill. Route 47 at 102 E. Van Emmon Street at the Van Emmon Activity Center, almost exactly on that line of 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude.

The newly installed marker is a tangible reminder of those days when Illinois statehood was in flux and under discussion, and is especially relevant now as we look forward to celebrating Illinois 200th birthday on Statehood Day this coming Dec. 3.

 

 

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When it comes to local government, you really do get what you pay for

The other day I was digging through a file of things I’d meant to write about someday (it’s a BIG file!) when I came across some interesting stuff about my hometown, Oswego, Illinois. Back in September 2016, the Value Penguin web site ranked Oswego as the worst town in Illinois in which to own a home. Then just a month later, the WalletHub web site ranked Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities, not only in Illinois but in the entire nation.

Clearly, studies like these two should always be considered with caution, but after reading both, it appeared Value Penguin’s analysis was heavily weighted towards tax burden, while WalletHub’s was heavily weighted towards quality of life.

“WalletHub’s analysts compared 1,268 cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 30 key indicators of livability,” according to the site’s news release, which I’d downloaded in hopes of doing something with it. “They range from ‘housing costs’ to ‘school-system quality’ to ‘number of restaurants per capita,’” the release continued.

After reading the release and thinking about the criteria WalletHub used, it was pretty clear their results strongly suggested that you get what you pay for.

Here in Oswego and in Kendall County in general, we have a fairly high property tax burden thanks to the way state politicians have gamed the system of financing government to make it extremely unfair and to also ensure their own reelections. As a result, regressive taxes, such as sales and property taxes, have become more and more prominent in financing local and state government while the income tax, a far more fair tax, has become increasingly marginalized.

But at least here in Oswego, we actually do get pretty much what we pay for. Those high property taxes finance a solid school system and outstanding park, library, and fire districts, all of which provide services that enhance the quality of life WalletHub values so highly.

1984 June Lippold, Ford cropped

Ford Lippold was a major force in creating the modern community residents see today.

I remember one Memorial Day, after watching our local parade and visiting the cemetery for the annual ceremony, mentioning to my wife that the guys who went off to war did a good job of protecting our American way of life. She replied that she thought politicians of the past ought to get some of the credit, too, something at the time I considered an interesting statement that strikes me as more and more profound as time passes.

Because today’s Oswego didn’t just pop into being fully and completely the way we see it today. It took a lot of careful work by a lot of people, many of them elected officials, to get us here.

The foundations for the modern community we enjoy today were laid in the immediate post-World War II era, when all of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines came home to either restart their old lives or to begin something completely new. There was an urgency back then that shines through the stories in the pages of the Oswego Ledger, the weekly newspaper Oswego native Ford Lippold started in 1949.

With all those young men marrying women of childbearing age, the post-war Baby Boom was just getting underway. All those new families needed homes and jobs. Uncle Sam stepped in to help supply both through generous G.I. Bill programs that helped veterans buy homes with virtually no down payment, and also offered to send them to college virtually for free. Millions of former service men took the government up on their offers, creating a housing boom and a huge pool of highly-educated workers hungry for their chance to make good. It turned out to be the biggest government stimulus program in history, and one of the most valuable to the nation’s economic health.

Here in Oswego it meant, at first, new subdivisions and area new employment opportunities. The first post-war housing developments were relatively small. But after Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of AT&T, announced plans for local factories, the era of big housing developments began.

1959 BH sign

Boulder Hill was the Fox Valley’s first large unincorporated subdivision. It was planned by developer Don L. Dise to have its own schools, churches, and shopping areas, along the lines of the Levittown development in his native Pennsylvania. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first of these was Boulder Hill, proposed on the former Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family. The force behind Boulder Hill was developer Don L. Dise working with a group of financial backers. While the Caterpillar and Western Electric announcements had gotten some attention, Dise’s proposal to develop more than 700 acres into an entirely new community with its own schools, churches, and stores really made folks sit up and take notice.

Interestingly enough, there was little opposition to all these new developments. Instead, the folks in charge of local government—many of whom were parents of my school classmates—decided that growth was good for Oswego and the community was going to grow and that long-range planning was needed to cope with it.

In the Aug. 4, 1955 Ledger under the heading “Village Planning Commission Needed?” Lippold wrote: “It is time to wake up and recognize the fact that Oswego and adjoining territory is growing and at an accelerated pace…Many communities faced with like problems have formed a planning committee to prepare for a systematic and orderly growth…Now is the time! Oswego is growing! Let’s keep it growing! Tomorrow may be too late!”

1957 abt Boulder Hill aerial

This aerial view of Boulder Hill under development, taken in 1957, shows the Western Electric plant at upper right, along with U.S. Route 30 Bypass under construction, and the new Caterpillar plant under construction at upper left. (Little White School Museum collection)

With Boulder Hill already under construction inside the Oswego School District, the grade and high school boards had already started planning for the future. Looking at this piecemeal approach, Oswego Township government, under the direction of township supervisor Wayne Fosgett (the father of another of my classmates), organized local school, municipal, and other officials to look into some professional land planning. Two weeks later, the Ledger reported that at a meeting of local elected and appointed officials, “A committee consisting of John Carr, Dr. M.R. Saxon, Mrs. Homer Brown, Charles Lippincott, and Jerome Nelson was appointed to talk with Western Electric personnel officers concerning the likely needs of workers at the new plant.”

The committee was also charged with talking with Boulder Hill developer Dise about “preliminary planning on schools, parks, fire protection, etc.”

Even at that early date, Oswego had a few things going for it. A fire protection district had been established back in the late 1930s to provide fire protection not only to the village of Oswego, but also to the large rural area surrounding it. In addition, by 1955 the community had a robust park district whose programming, especially for children, was growing. The community also had use of the small community library operated by the Nineteenth Century Club, a women’s civic organization.

The idea to establish a comprehensive development plan began gaining widespread community support. In early September 1955, a petition containing the names of 220 Oswego registered voters was presented to the village board recommending establishing a comprehensive development plan be established. At a special board meeting later that month, the board approved an ordinance establishing an 11-member planning commission.

But the wheels of even local government move slowly. By early December, there had been no movement on the part of the village to appoint plan commission members, and Ledger editor Lippold reminded the community that time was wasting. “The time is urgent. The need is urgent. Let us hope that the plan commission is completed and in operation by the January board meeting,” he wrote.

By January 18, the village was ready to move, and that evening Oswego’s first plan commission, consisting of William K. Miller, Douglas Dreier, Henry W. Smith, Mrs. Lester (Dorothy) Bell, Mrs. Stanley Drew, John Luettich, Rev. G. Albert Murphy, Everett McKeown, and Stanley Herren was appointed.

The community was becoming aware of what awaited them as growth began to accelerate. There was plenty of agricultural land surrounding Oswego that could easily be subdivided. And with the exception of Caterpillar and Western Electric, there was very little industrial and commercial property available to take the tax burden off homeowners and farmers. Writing in the March 8, 1956 Ledger, Lippold commented: “Oswego is in a position where it will certainly get the full force of the influx of population. We are on the fringe of a huge industrial area and the trend from metropolitan Chicago is in our direction. If we are going to get the houses and the people, we might just as well have the industry and reap the tax benefits therefrom. Industry will ease the tax load on every person in the community. It is a good thing for our county and township officials to be thinking of, as well as our plan commission. Oswego is going to grow. The handwriting is on the wall. Now is the time to plan.”

The need was becoming much more urgent, and as community leaders gave the matter some thought, they realized that any planning effort had to be broad-based and not simply limited to the Oswego village limits. As a result, officials from Oswego Township, the grade and high school districts, the fire protection district, and representatives from the community’s civic organizations made the collective decision to significantly broaden the community planning base.

1957 Oswego Comp Plan

The cover of Oswego Park District President Ralph Wheeler’s copy of the 1957 comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum collection)

At the annual Oswego Township meeting in April 1956, the electors attending voted $400 towards financing a community comprehensive plan. Then in late May about 50 community leaders, along with village officials and members of the new Oswego Plan Commission met at Oswego High School to hear a presentation by planners with Everett Kincaid and Associates, a prominent Chicago planning firm.

Lippold kept the pressure on, commenting in the May 30, 1956 Ledger: “This is a time for working together in our community. It is a time for thinking ahead and planning. It is a time for doing. How well we plan, how well we work will decide whether Oswego progresses or becomes a dusty spider-web covered community.”

The next week, the village board agreed to spend $2,500 to hire Kincaid to draw up a comprehensive development plan for Oswego and Oswego Township. The board expressed the hope that participation in drawing up the plan would be community-wide. On Feb. 21, 1957, the completed plan was unveiled to a crowd of more than 200 area residents at a special meeting at Oswego High School. “Oswego is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, town in this part of the United States to have such an official plan prepared and ready for adoption,” Lippold noted in the Ledger.

The village board eventually adopted the Kincaid plan after they adopted their first subdivision ordinance, building code, and land use maps. In late May 1957, the board formally approved the Kincaid plan and it was printed for distribution.

From that beginning, the Oswego area began growing as more and more folks moved into Dise’s Boulder Hill Subdivision, as well as into the other subdivisions being developed in and around Oswego. The transition from a small farming area to a fast-growing suburban community definitely put stress on local institutions. Dise pledged to help a bit by offering $100 to local taxing districts for each of his new homes. But the area needed some new resources, too.

During the Great Depression, Oswego had received Works Progress Administration funds to operate a summer recreation program for youngsters. In the post-war years, as members of the Baby Boom began making their presence felt, the community again began looking for some way to entertain them. In 1948, at the urging of the Oswego Parent-Teacher Association, a community recreation committee was established with Al Shuler as chairman, Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Secretary, and Max Cutter, treasurer. John Luettich, Mrs. O. W. (Jane) Patterson, Don Pinnow, and Ford L. Lippold, were directors. The committee canvassed the community and received $1,000 in donations to start a summer recreation program. In late 1949, another fund drive met with only lukewarm success, suggesting to the committee that a more formal funding mechanism was needed. The recreation board acting as the organizers, a drive was begun to establish a park district that would be funded through property taxes. In April 1950, voters approved establishing the new taxing district by a vote of 263-137. The first board of park commissioners elected that spring was Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Mrs. O.W. Patterson, William Anderson, Arthur Davis, and Ralph Wheeler.

1964 Oswego Pub Library dedication A

The Oswego Township Library was dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1964. Its construction was financed with community donations in a campaign organized by the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new public library was built through public subscription, opening in 1964 as a township library. In April 1977, by a 2-1 margin, township residents voted to change the library’s governance to a library district to protect its broad property tax base.

In 1962, the separate grade and high school districts merged to form Oswego Community Consolidated Unit School District 308, educating students from first through 12th grades. A few years later, kindergarten was added to the district, mostly at the urging of residents of Boulder Hill.

A few years later, reflecting the reality that it served more areas than simply the village of Oswego, the park district officially changed its name to the Oswegoland Park District.

“As more than two-thirds of the residents in the district live outside the village limits, it was felt that the Oswegoland designation would be more representative of the geography of the district,” Lippold reported in the Feb. 2, 1966 Ledger. “The Oswegoland Park District covers a 36 square mile area in the shape of a square with each side being six miles in length.”

So by 1977, the basic underpinning of the Oswego area community that led WalletHub to honor Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities in the U.S. were in place. Since then, Oswego’s population has literally exploded from 1980’s 3,012 residents to the latest estimate of 34,571, while Oswego Township’s total population has also boomed, from 1980s 16,772 to a population of 50,870 in 2010, the latest date I’ve been able to find a figure for.

Absorbing that many people in such a relatively short period of time—Oswego’s municipal population as late as 1990 was just 3,876—while maintaining a relatively high standard of living and making the community a desirable place to raise a family didn’t come about by accident. It started all the way back in 1956 when those newly discharged World War II draftees and enlistees started raising their families and looking towards making their community a good place to live. But they also—and this is the really important part of the story—wanted the Oswego area to be a nice place to live for those who came after them. We owe a significant debt of gratitude to people like Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, strong advocate of youth recreation programs, and the first director of the Oswego Park District; Bill Miller, member of the first plan commission and village board member; Wayne Fosgett, Oswego Township Supervisor and strong community planning advocate; Jane Patterson, Oswego business owner and strong advocate of local parks and comprehensive planning; Dick Young, environmentalist, public official, author, and another strong advocate for planning and zoning; and so many others who volunteered their time and often their own treasure to make our community what it is today.

Local officials, the folks who serve, often at no pay, on the park, school, library, township, fire, county, and village boards come in for a lot of criticism—some of it justified!—but they work hard, and for the most part their efforts have made the Oswego area into what even people outside the community believe is a good place to live.

 

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My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

Robert Edward Lee.jpg

Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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