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.
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.
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.”
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.