Tag Archives: Kendall County

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

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

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

fishing-the-fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

water-willow-planting

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

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

bob-rung-gar

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

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

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

 

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A great lake guaranteed Illinois’ economic success

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

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

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

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

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

1831 Fort Dearborn

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Grain Elevators

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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There was no room for amateurs during the annual threshing season

About this time of year during our great-grandparents’ era, as “small grains” including oats, wheat, barley, and rye were rapidly ripening, the threshing season on area farms was just getting ready to begin.

Threshing outfits were too expensive for average farmers to buy on their own, and required far more labor to operate than a single farm could supply. Not that there weren’t a few individuals who owned them, of course. Irvin Moyer, who owned a machine shop that catered to local farmers at the intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Douglas Road here in Oswego Township, owned a threshing machine and a huge Aultman-Taylor gasoline-powered tractor. Moyer did custom threshing for many area farmers with his rig, as did Clarence Shoger from over Naperville way and Thad Seely on the west side of the Fox River.

But most farmers formed cooperative threshing rings of as few as four and up to a dozen farmers. Each member bought one or two shares in the ring and then participated in the annual harvest, with the threshing rig and the participating farmers and hired hands traveling from one farm to the next around the ring.

The Woolley Ring, for instance, operated on farms mostly located in School District 6 in the Woolley and Collins Road areas east of Oswego, while farmers on the Oswego Prairie along Wolf’s Crossing Road formed the East Oswego Ring. Farmers throughout the rest of Kendall County formed similar cooperatives in their neighborhoods.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the road to the next farm about 1900, with the steam traction engine pulling the ring’s threshing machine. Photo supplied by Dale Updike, Alberta, Canada, Little White School Museum Collection.

The East Oswego Ring owned an Aultman-Taylor threshing machine; a 20-40 Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-powered internal combustion tractor bought about 1918; a 100-foot drive belt; a canvas tarpaulin big enough to cover the threshing machine while it was stored between harvests; four big tarpaulins used to cover loads of grain in case of rain and overnight during the threshing process; and an equipment storage shed located on the Burkhart Farm. The engineer (who operated the tractor powering the threshing machine), the separator man (who operated the threshing machine itself), and the blowerman (who had to skillfully direct the flow of straw after it was stripped of grain kernels into neat straw stacks) were appointed at the ring’s annual meeting.

Farmer members of the ring were expected to supply the labor for the less skilled jobs in the ring including bundle haulers, bundle pitchers, and grain men. Unlike the skilled jobs, men and boys who filled the other positions usually rotated because some jobs were more desirable than others. Pitching bundles of grain into wagons from the field was considered a choice job, while grain men working in the heat, noise, and dust of the threshing machine itself were less likely to enjoy their work.

1912 Acme Binders

Photo of 25 Acme Queen binders taken June 22, 1912 on “The Flats” immediately north of the Oswego bridge, site of modern Hudson Crossing Park. Oswego implement dealer Bob Johnston sold the binders to local farmers for the 1912 harvest season. The photo, probably taken from the interurban trolley trestle, was snapped by H. R. Krueger, Yorkville.

At each ring’s annual meeting, generally called at about this time of year, right before threshing started, the jobs, labor rotation, any equipment purchases, and maintenance schedules were all laid out. Within a day or two, the threshing machine was taken out of storage and thoroughly checked, as was the giant belt that powered it. The ring’s tractor, whether steam or internal combustion, was serviced and readied for work. In rings with steam tractors, the engineers and firemen checked their machines carefully, because of the danger of bursting a boiler or some other equally serious accident could cause permanent injury or death.

As these preparations proceeded, the work of binding grain was wrapping up. Horse drawn binders cut and bound stalks of small grains into bundles a foot or so in diameter, each bundle, depending on the brand of binder, secured with either twine or wire. From the time of their invention until the 1920s, teams of horses pulled binders through the fields.

Amish oats in shocks

Oat shocks, which allow ripe grain to dry in preparation for threshing, are made of grain bundles cleverly stacked with other bundles fashioned into a relatively weather-tight roof. These shocks are on a modern Amish farm

Afterwards, increasingly affordable and dependable gasoline-powered tractors pulled them. However they were powered, the machines were the first step in the harvest process, as the binder dropped tied bundles of ripe grain on the ground The bundles were then stacked by hand into shocks of 20 or so bundles for further drying. Skillful stackers gave each shock an artful weatherproof roof of grain bundles to thoroughly dry and await threshing.

Moving threshing machines from farm to farm on the poor roads of the era was not easy, and stories abound of tractors and machines getting stuck or worse.

On Nov. 26, 1890, the Kendall County Record reported one such major mishap involving a steam traction engine and threshing machine in Bristol Township:

“The steam thresher outfit of the Leighs, of Oswego, has been for some days on the west side of Blackberry Creek doing clover hulling and threshing; Monday afternoon they left Fred young’s place for home and attempted to cross the Blackberry creek at the mouth over the bridge near the mill. The thresher and the traction engine were coupled together. There were two men riding on the engine, Mr. Leigh and his engineer. The engine had passed about 12 feet on the bridge when a needle-beam pulled out of the bolts by which it was attached to the bridge chords, and the engine fell with a great crash through the bridge floor into the creek below, a distance of about 12 feet. The men on the engine jumped as the bridge gave way; one landed in the deep water just under the dam, the other lit on the rock bottom of the creek on the lower side, breaking four ribs, a collar bone and being badly bruised in his fall. The injured man was Mr. Fred Leigh Jr. one of the owners of the machine. He was taken to a house and Dr. Kinnett repaired his injuries and from thence to his home near Oswego. The outfit was new this season and is quite a loss. The separator did not follow; a timber in the front end caught a plank on the portion of the bridge which did not fall and it hung there on the brink.”

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

The East Oswego Threshing Ring’s original Aultman-Taylor steam traction engine and threshing machine are hard at work in this 1911 photo by Malcom Rance. The steamer was replaced in 1918 with a Rumely Oil Pull internal combustion tractor. (Little White School Museum collection)

The East Oswego Ring’s Rumely pulled their threshing machine from farm to farm, and the rings with steam engines for power also had to make sure the water and fuel wagons were brought along, too.

Siting a threshing machine was an art in itself. First, it had to be positioned so that the exhaust from the steam or internal combustion tractor, and its attendant sparks, would be kept away from the grain, dust, and straw produced by the threshing process. The 50 to 100-foot belts that extended from the power take-off of the tractors helped, but prevailing winds also had to be kept in mind, as did the likely location of the straw stacks that were the byproducts of the process. Straw was necessary for raising livestock (as both bedding and fodder), so it was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Creating a compact stack of high quality straw was one more technical skill that had to be mastered.

Running the giant belt, eight to 10 inches wide, 50 to 100 feet from the tractor to the threshing machine was also a high-skill job. Both machines had to be level with each other to avoid undue belt wear and to make sure the belt wouldn’t be thrown off the machines’ pulleys. “Setting” a threshing machine and its tractor was no job for greenhorns.

And after all that work, it had to be done again and again and again as the crew moved from farm to farm, often working 10 hour days, until all the grain in the ring had been threshed.

Today, farmers use giant combine harvesters to do the same job it took more than 20 men and boys, plus a half-dozen or so farm wives in the kitchen at each farm to do. The harvest ritual is still with us, but it’s a lot different now than then. Which pretty much sums up history in general, when you stop to think about it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

1938 Husking Stewart corn

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

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

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

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

A modern corn field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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No power, but no flood—this time at least

We’ve been getting a bit of rain lately around these parts, although the Fox River has entered its usual mid-summer shallow season.

On Sunday evening, another of the spotty thunder storms we’ve been experiencing this summer rolled through, accompanied by lots of lightning, one of which struck uncomfortably near the Matile Manse, after which the lights well and truly went out.

When I say this was a spotty t-storm, I’m not understating it a bit. It never did rain from that bit of thundercloud at my son’s house, which is about a mile and a half south of us.

So there we sat with no cable TV and no Internet, which wasn’t all that big a loss since we’d both been reading anyway, although my wife was reading a dead tree book, so she needed a bit of light. Me, I was reading on my iPad’s Kindle app, so I was good. But we decided to take a ride to see what we could see and determined that it was only the seven or eight houses at our end of North Adams that had no power. Drove to Panera to charge our phones and have some over-priced soup, and then home, shortly after which the ComEd boys and girls did their thing and the power came back on.

While we did indeed lose power, at least we weren’t afflicted with a flood like the one that hit our area just 20 years ago this month. The Flood of ’96 was the most serious one the area had experienced in many decades—if ever.

Our corner of the Fox Valley got around 17” of rain the night of July 17-18, 1996, and it caused a rolling series of local disasters as the flood water drained and tried to get to the Fox River. As a result, roads that were open and passable the morning of July 18, were closed to flooding by that evening, stranding more than one person somewhere he didn’t want to be.

Our penchant for draining wetlands and turning them into either farm fields or residential or commercial subdivisions really came back to bit us during the Flood of ’96. Blackberry Creek, trying to carry a volume of runoff it was never meant to, and whose course was restricted by bridges on several county roads and state highways, spread out and flooded roads and businesses and complete housing developments, especially on Aurora’s far west side and in Bristol Township here in Kendall County. Because there was no straight route for all that water to go, it spread out, seeking a way to get to the river, flooding a huge area.

1996 7-18 Car off road in flood

This Ford Taurus station wagon encountered a washed-out culvert on Douglas Road just south of Collins Road the night of July 17-18 1996. I took the photo, which won the Spot News Photo award from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, on July 18.

Meanwhile, here in the Oswego area, normally small streams turned into raging torrents. Waubonsie Creek, taking in a huge volume of runoff, nearly took out the railroad bridge here in Oswego and did take out the venerable 1880s box truss bridge just south of the Matile Manse on North Adams Street. The whole bridge structure was picked up and washed downstream. Meanwhile, the railroad folks brought in carloads of large diameter rocks to shore up the rail bridge’s upstream piers and abutments. It worked, but it was a near-run thing.

The Fox River, generally low and sluggish stream in mid-July, also became a raging torrent, coming up out of its banks to levels not seen for many a year. At that time, my sister was living across the street from us right on the river. None of the floods any of us had ever experienced had driven the river so far out of its banks. That morning, my sister awoke to see her lawn furniture beginning to float away from her backyard. But she was a former farm girl, and so grabbed a rope, made a lasso out of it, and proceeded to lasso the lawn chairs as they floated past on the flood tide—much to the amazement of her husband, who had grown up in an apartment building on Chicago’s South Side and had only seen such things in cowboy movies.

No one was killed, but some were injured, including one fellow who had been driving on Douglas Road out east of Oswego when he encountered a culvert that was no longer there, the entire road having been washed out when the tiny stream that usually carried only field tile drainage a few miles to Waubonsie Creek turned into an angry, rushing torrent. It was dark, and the guy’s Ford Taurus station wagon fell right into the chasam that had formerly been the road crossing the trickle.

As floods went, this one was a real doozy. As somebody interested in history and in the effects we have on our environment, it was a real eye-opener as well. When I correlated subdivisions that flooded but that had never flooded before with the Little White School Museum’s collection of 1830s survey maps, invariably there were wetlands or marshy areas drawn in where those modern housing developments are located today. Mother Nature really does have a way of getting her own back, sometimes despite modern engineering’s best efforts.

As I noted above, residents of the Fox Valley have been trying to eliminate wetlands ever since the first settlers arrived, and they’ve been really good at it, too. But those old wet areas served a couple valuable purposes that the powers that be are only recently paying attention to. First of all, wetlands tend to blot up stormwater runoff, slowing it’s velocity and releasing it at slower rates. Without those wetlands, water runs off quickly and at speed, and fast-moving water is extremely destructive. Wetlands, because they temporarily hold stormwater, help recharge ground water aquifers. And they also filter stormwater so that all the debris and harmful things that build up on streets, sidewalks, and parking lots don’t get washed directly into water courses.

Not, of course that we didn’t have some pretty spectacular floods before 1996, of course. Back in the 19th Century, there were three major floods that really stuck in peoples’ minds. Back in that day, they called them “freshets,” and they made pretty big impressions.

Fox River freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868.

The 1840 freshet caused the least amount of damage, primarily because there just weren’t a whole lot of property to damage at that early date. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, noted of the 1840 flood: “The year was ushered in by one of the largest spring freshets known. Fox River flooded all the lowlands along its course, and at Millington two acres of splendid logs were carried away. Only two such freshets have been known since, in 1857 and 1868. But the last two have had bridges instead of saw logs to exert their brief power on.”

1857 Aurora freshet

The 1857 freshet left a big impression with folks living along the Fox River that year. Above, Galena Boulevard deadends at the Fox River since the bridges to Stolp Island have been washed out, as have several buildings on the island.

J .H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind, recalling that he’d gone to bed when it was still raining.

“When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

The memorable freshet of 1868, caused when a rainstorm caused the ice on the Fox River to suddenly break up, damaged the Oswego bridge but did not wash it out. Fortunately, the year before, the old wooden structure had been replaced by a new iron arch bridge. But other communities were not so lucky.

The March 12, 1868 Kendall County Record reported that: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”

Despite the rain we’ve been getting here in northern Illinois, at least we’ve had nothing so far approaching the Flood of ’96, for which we can all be thankful. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mother Nature in case she decides to mess with us again, just for old times sake.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History

Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized