Tag Archives: Local Heroes

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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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

A terrible, honorable sacrifice finally memorialized

It’s been hot and humid here around and about the Matile Manse, and when that happens, I tend to hunker down and find things to do to procrastinate so I don’t have to leave my cool dehumidified confines and at the same time don’t have to get involved in difficult research.

What that means, in practice, is mining Ancestry.com for family info to fill in the gaps (which are many and wide) in my family genealogy. One way to waste a LOT of time is to delve, once again, into my Minnich clan. My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Wolf, married Johan Minnich in 1846 back in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Wolf and Minnich are both extremely common names in that place and time, so there are dozens of blind alleys to go down, trips that waste loads of time, so perfect for procrastinating.

So the other day, I fired up my family database once again, and started looking through the Wolf side of Mary Ann’s family and I noted that not only was her father named Michael, but so was one of her brothers, which struck me as interesting. Brother Michael’s information was pretty thin on the ground—birth date but no death date—so I started digging to see if I could at least put Michael to rest.

And that’s when an interesting, tragic story began to unfold. Michael was born in 1840 in Schuylkill County, the fourth son and fifth child of Michael and Becky Shaefer Wolf. They mined lots of coal in Schuylkill, and the Wolf boys went into the mines. That’s what they were doing the Civil War broke out. Brother Isaac signed up right away, enlisting in Company A, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, enlisting in August, 1861, and marching off to war with the regiment’s 1,000 or so newly recruited soldiers in September.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield. (National Park Service)

As it turned out, the 50th Pennsylvania saw an awful lot of hard campaigning, from its very first commitment to action. Loaded aboard the sailing transport Winfield Scott, the regiment was shipped south to participate in the Union attempt to seize Charleston, S.C. On the way, a huge storm blew up and the entire regiment was nearly lost at sea off Cape Hatteras. From the inconclusive South Carolina campaign, the 50th moved back north to fight at Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before being sent west to Kentucky and then to Mississippi, where they fought under U.S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign. From there, they marched back east to Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, Tennessee where it mustered just 80 soldiers fit for duty, although even some of those were still suffering from the effects of malaria contracted in the swamps around Vicksburg.

Gradually, the sick and wounded returned to duty during the stay at Knoxville, which was fortunate because the regiment was hurried northeast to throw back a Confederate advance into East Tennessee, which the American army did at the Battle of Blue Springs. Back in Knoxville thanks to the advance of Confederates under James Longstreet, the 50th was heavily engages at the Battle of Fort Sanders during the siege of the city until Longstreet was finally forced to retreat.

It was at Knoxville on Jan. 1, 1864 that the three-year enlistments of the 50th’s men ran out. Nearly the entire regiment reenlisted for another term, after which they took an extremely arduous march east and then on to Harrisburg in their home state. There they were granted veterans’ furloughs and they headed home with orders to return in early spring. It’s likely Isaac went home and talked with his younger brother, Michael, about serving in the 50th. Whatever his motivation, Michael enlisted as a private in his brother’s Company A on April 6, 1864. He was officially mustered in the next day, April 7 at Pottsville in Schuylkill County.

On March 20, the 50th, veterans and new recruits alike, rendezvoused at Annapolis, Maryland where it was organized, the troops drilled, and then assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, IX Corps. With their corps, the 50th marched south to join Gen. U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Their route took them through Washington, D.C. where they were personally reviewed by President Lincoln and on farther south across the old Bull Run battlefield where they’d fought so hard three years before.

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

Grant was aiming directly for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and was hoping to prevent him from reaching the fortifications around Richmond. As Grant attempted to force his IX Corps through a dense patch of woods and brush called The Wilderness, Lee struck in yet another of his ill-conceived offensives. Because the strategic fact was that while Grant’s American army could afford to lose men, Lee’s rebels could not afford to lose a single soldier.

The Battle of the Wilderness was a harbinger of bloody fights to come as Grant continually attempted to slip around Lee’s rebels to cut them off from Richmond. Grant had cold-bloodedly decided on a strategy of attrition after coming to the conclusion that the rebel armies simply could not withstand sustained combat due to lack of personnel. The close-quarters combat cost the Union 17,666 casualties, including 2,246 killed in action, which could be replaced. It cost Lee 11,033 irreplaceable, trained soldiers—1,477 of them killed. Although no one really understood yet, it was the beginning of the end for the South and slavery.

Not among the casualties were the Wolf brothers, even though the 50th Pennsylvania was heavily engaged. It must have been a sobering baptism of fire for Michael, but pretty much business as usual for Isaac.

Tactically, the battle was inconclusive, but strategically, it was one more disaster for Lee as he lost more than a division’s worth of priceless troops. Even more sobering for Lee was Grant’s tenacity. He was used to other American generals who, after a similar bloody fight, would have spent time reorganizing and licking their wounds. Not Grant.

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it's wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it’s wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After disengaging at The Wilderness, Grant immediately tried out-marching Lee, a futile hope—the Confederates were known for rapid marching. The rebels ended up beating the Union to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The 50th, along with the rest of Burnside’s IX Corps, moved southwest along the Fredericksburg Pike, encountering Cadmus Wilcox’s rebel division northeast of Spotsylvania at the Ni River on May 9. The 50th’s regimental history recounts what happened next: “With fixed bayonets, the Fiftieth, led by Lieutenant Colonel [Edward] Overton, charged up the up the steep ascent, and routed a force of the enemy greatly superior in number; but the success was gained at a fearful cost, losing in killed, wounded and missing, one hundred and twenty men.”

Among those who fell during that bloody assault was Michael Wolf, a soldier for just a month and two days. A Confederate Minié ball struck Wolf’s left arm just below the shoulder, shattering the humerus, knocking him out of the fight and the war. Brother Isaac again escaped without a scratch, and went on to serve for several more months before being mustered out on Sept. 29, 1864.

Michael was carried to a Union field hospital where surgeons, working as quickly as possible under grim conditions, amputated the arm at the shoulder since there was no sound bone left to form a stump. He was evacuated to Carver General Hospital at Washington, D.C., arriving there May 14. Not until July was he strong enough to travel. On July 6 he was discharged and sent home to Schuylkill County.

His sister, my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann, went to visit as soon as he arrived home and was shocked at the appearance of this once-hearty former coal miner. “I found him propped up in bed, his heart beating very hard and fast,” she recalled years afterward. Because of the way the amputation was done, there were problems with property routing blood vessels, creating heart problems. “From the time of his discharge to his death he was troubled all the time with heart disease and often had severe attacks of it so that he was confined to his bed,” Mary Ann recalled.

In 1868, my great-great grandparents decided try their luck in Illinois, first settling out on the Wheatland Township prairie where they farmed for a few years before moving to a place just north of Oswego in the old Village of Troy where Mary Ann maintained a boarding house and wove rag rugs on a loom Johann made for her while he found work on the railroad.

Michael, hearing reports of how nice it was in Illinois—and there being no market for one-armed coal miners—decided to move west, too. He settled with his sister and her family for a while, and then even found someone to marry. Elizabeth Orr was divorced with two growing children, but the couple apparently made a go of it on Michael’s slim $24 a month soldier’s disability pension. Elizabeth’s children married into local families and Michael dealt with the unnumbered health problems resulting from his short, disastrous, military career. He died in Oswego in 1884.

The Sept. 10, 1884 Kendall County Record carried his short, poignant obituary: “Michael Wolf, the one armed soldier who has been almost in continual distress—his arm was taken off at the shoulder joint, leaving no stump, which caused certain disarrangements in the arterial system and affected the heart—and who has been on the failing order for some time died the latter part of the week. The funeral took place Sunday afternoon from the house.”

He was buried with so many of his Civil War comrades in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Michael Wolf's new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

Michael Wolf’s new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

The family was too poor to provide a tombstone for Michael’s grave, so it remained unmarked. Until this year. The local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War decided to make a project of obtaining stones for the unmarked graves of Union soldiers in the Oswego Township Cemetery. My friend Stephenie Todd worked to find living relatives of the fallen soldiers—blood relatives must sign off on the efforts to mark soldiers’ unmarked graves in order to receive a U.S. Government-supplied tombstone. Earlier this summer, volunteers set the veterans’ stones, including one for Michael Wolf obtained thanks to my distant relatives Ron Moses and Ted Clauser.

As readers of this blog and my column in the Kendall County Record newspapers know, I am no fan of the Civil War. It was fought over the most depraved of causes—the enslavement of human beings—which was so essential to the world view of a large fraction of the nation’s population that they were willing to commit treason and attempt to destroy their country in order to perpetuate it. For uncounted thousands of soldiers who fought against slavery and for national union, the war never ended. Like Michael Wolf, they lived lives of unending and perpetual pain, both physical and mental. The very least we can and should do is provide the small recognition of a grave marker for those who gave so much of themselves to keep our nation united and free from such a terrible stain. Now, thanks to some who’ve never forgotten their sacrifices, at least a few more of those unremembered veterans can rest a bit easier.

 

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

African American History Month…

February is African American History Month. I’ve always wondered why January wasn’t selected as the month to honor the history of the nation’s black residents since, to me, at least, January seems to make a lot more sense. After all, it’s the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. But February it is.

Every year about this time, I hear folks wondering how come we need a African American History Month at all. After all, blacks are citizens like everyone else and other ethnic groups don’t have their own history months. Except they do. For instance, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month, September is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. And November honors American Indians.

And there’s one major historical difference between African Americans and all the nation’s other ethnic groups: blacks are the only ones who were brought here involuntarily.

Black slaves were first imported into Illinois during the French colonial era. The first 500 blacks were brought from Haiti in 1720 to work mines and when that didn’t pan out, to grow crops in and around the colonial towns of Cahokia and Kaskaskia that were exported downriver to New Orleans. Slavery continued in Illinois throughout the colonial era and after the Revolutionary War secured Illinois for the new United States. When the Northwest Ordinance was passed in 1787 establishing the Northwest Territory (which included the eventual states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana), slavery was prohibited, with the major loophole that slaves owned by the territory’s French residents were permitted. Illinois was first settled by Southerners coming up from Tennessee and Kentucky. Because of the pro-slavery stance of so many of Illinois’ earliest residents, turning it into a slave state was narrowly avoided during a contentious political campaign in 1824, thanks to the strong anti-slavery views of the growing number of settlers from northern states and England.

Nathan Hughes and his wife posed for this formal portrait about 1892. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin made from captured Confederate cannons. (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes and his wife posed for this formal portrait about 1892. A Union Army veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops, Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin made from captured Confederate cannons. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County’s black history began a decade later. Among those arriving in the county in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray, and Elias Dial. The group decided to settle around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area in Fox Township.

The group was notable for a couple of reasons. First, they hadn’t moved west in gradual stages via the Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Illinois route most Southerner settlers took. Instead, like the flood of pioneers from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, they came directly from the South. But unlike those other settlers, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks noted the South Carolinians “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is highly unlikely, however, that either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when the Carns and Murrays brought them to Kendall County. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. With state government still heavily in the hands of slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who insisted on owning their fellow humans.

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County's black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes' daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day.  (Little White School Museum collection)

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County’s black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes’ daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the next 35 years, few other blacks lived in Kendall County, at least according to the dectennial censuses. But after the Civil War, the county saw a flood of former slaves arrive and settle on farms. Others moved to the county’s small towns where they established businesses or worked for white residents.

The heyday of the county’s black farming community was in the 1880s, after which many of the families left the land to work in factories in the Kendall County community of Plano and in nearby Aurora, whose industrial base was booming. The descendants of those families still live in and around Aurora, while others who grew up in and around Oswego have moved on and up, parlaying their small town roots into a wide range of careers including service as educators from public schools through university. (For a more in-depth look at the African American community in Kendall County, follow the link to one of my recent Ledger-Sentinel columns.)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes' grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes’ grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Interestingly enough, these new residents to this small corner of northern Illinois seemed to fit in pretty well. Their kids went to local schools, and out in rural areas they participated in the farming culture. In town, some of them became integrated into community life. The big question, for me and for their descendants who are now working on their family histories, is why did they choose to move to Kendall County? What was the lure? No one living apparently knows. It seems an odd choice. Yes, the county had a rail line running through it’s northern tier, but most of the black families that came in the wake of the Civil War settled several miles away from that line.

There was no existing African American community here in Kendall County, and those families who had left the old slave states could not be at all sure what their reception would be. And for many reasons, those receptions turned out to be reasonably affable. It didn’t hurt that some of tho African American men who came after the war were veterans of the conflict like so many of their white neighbors. The Grand Army of the Republic, the politically powerful Union veterans’ organization, normally did not welcome black members. But here in Kendall County they did. Private Nathan Hughes, badly wounded in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., was not only welcomed into the Yorkville GAR post, but also served as an officer. His grandchildren became the first black people to graduate from high school in the county, and his great-great-great grandchildren went on to become college professors.

Interestingly enough, during those early years,it was often impossible to tell from the local weekly newspaper whether the subjects of local news articles were black or white. It wasn’t until the post World War I xenophobia kicked in that widespread racism and ethnic bigotry gained a foothold in Kendall County. The slide was so complete that the once-color blind local press joined in and in the 1920s the KKK even had some affiliate groups in the county.

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, in terms of racism and ethnic bigotry, Kendall County has largely gotten back to where it was a century ago. Whether progress or regression, that seems like a good thing.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Uncategorized

Oswego’s Slade Cutter: A real American hero

We bandy the word “hero” around a lot these days, to the point that its true meaning has been severely devalued. A word that used to be reserved for those who did heroic acts above and beyond normal behavior, hero is now applied indiscriminately to everyone from police officers to military personnel just doing their everyday jobs.

But back in the day when “hero” really meant something, Oswego had its share. There was Robinson B. Murphy, the 15 year-old who earned the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil war. There was Anna Brown, “The Hero Teacher,” in the 1870s. And during World War II, there was Slade Cutter.

It’s not often that someone earns fame in three separate arenas. But Slade Cutter managed to do just that, excelling in music, sports, and in the military, and along the way became a legitimate American hero.

Not only was he a nationally award-winning high school musician, but he went on to become a football All-American and national collegiate boxing champ at the U.S. Naval Academy. Then, during World War II, Cutter became one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful submarine commanders, whose exploits during the battles against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific were, and still are, legendary.

Slade Deville Cutter was born on Nov. 1, 1911 in Chicago and then taken home to the family farm, located just south of the Oswego village limits along what eventually became Ill. Route 71. The Queen Ann-style farmhouse where his parents, Watts and Esther (Sundeen) Cutter, lived and where Slade grew up with his brothers and sister still stands, as does the old Cutter School (named after his family and now remodeled into a private home) he attended at the northwest corner of the old Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road intersection.

The Cutter School at modern Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road just south of Oswego. Although undated, the school would have looked much like this when Slade Cutter attended. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Cutter School at modern Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road just south of Oswego. Although undated, the school would have looked much like this when Slade Cutter attended. (Little White School Museum photo)

When Cutter started school there were no other first graders, so he was promoted to second grade where there was at least one more student. The same thing happened when he entered fifth grade. As a result, he graduated from eighth grade Cutter School at age 11, too young to be allowed to enter high school. So he took eighth grade over at an Aurora junior high, where he became fascinated with playing the flute.

While Cutter’s parents encouraged their children to excel, sports wasn’t part of the encouragement. Cutter’s father had lost an eye playing football at the University of Illinois and so banned his tall, muscular son from getting involved in the game.

After completing eighth grade one more time, and since Oswego High only offered a two-year program, Cutter chose to attend East Aurora High School. In those days, students could hop the interurban trolley—the tracks ran right past Cutter’s home—and commute to school in Aurora.

At East High, Cutter continued to excel with the flute. He joined the East High marching band, but felt so ridiculous playing the flute that he managed to persuade the band director to let him switch, for marching only, to the bass drum.

Encouraged by his parents, Cutter traveled into Chicago each Sunday morning to take flute lessons from the first chair flautist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He paid for the lessons—$5 for a half-hour—and trolley fare by giving lessons to local Oswego youngsters at $1 each.

During his senior year at East, he entered the national high school music competition. He won the city, district, and state championships and went on to the national championship, held that year—1928—in Joliet. He recalled the head judge was the leader of the era’s most famous touring band, John Philip Sousa. The judge of the flute competition was a young clarinetist who had only recently started touring with his own band. The slight, bespeckled musician was impressed both with Cutter’s performance. But although Benny Goodman tried to persuade Cutter to join his band’s summer tour, Cutter declined, opting instead to attend the Sherwood School of Music, where he found he simply didn’t really have what it took to be a music pro.

“I had the ear, and I had the technique, but I didn’t have the rhythm,” he recalled in a 1984 interview.

After graduating from East High, Cutter, through a typically (for him, at least) serendipitous series of events, found himself attending the Naval Academy’s prep school at Severn School in Maryland.

While at Severn, the school’s new 22 year-old football coach strongly urged the Illinois youngster to play football. The coach and the school’s president pleaded with Cutter’s father to let the boy play, and soon he did. Not only did Cutter come to enjoy football, he became a star player. The coach, whose name was Paul Brown, went on to become one of the most successful and influential coaches in National Football League history.

All-American Slade Cutter, 1934. On Dec. 1, 1934, Cutter kicked the winning field goal to lift Navy over Army. (Little White School Museum photo)

All-American Slade Cutter, 1934. On Dec. 1, 1934, Cutter kicked the winning field goal to lift Navy over Army. (Little White School Museum photo)

Following his appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Cutter played football for the Midshipmen, earning All-American honors as a hard-hitting tackle. But it was his skill as a field goal kicker that won Cutter enduring fame. During the rain-soaked Army-Navy game on Dec. 1, 1934 in Philadelphia, the 6-1, 215-pound Cutter booted a 20-yard field goal—the only score of the game—giving Navy its first victory over Army since 1921. The game–and Cutter–were immortalized on Dec. 2, 1934 in a Philadelphia Sunday News story by Damon Runyon.

How did he manage the kick? Of course it depended on skill and accuracy (Cutter was also a dead shot with a rifle), but divine intervention may have also played a part. During Cutter’s Midshipman Cruise in the summer of 1934, the cadets visited Rome and the Vatican where the Pope was scheduled to bless the young naval officers-to-be.

As Cutter recalled the event in a 1999 reminiscence:

“Bill Clark, one of the best punters in the history of Navy football, was standing next to me and we decided to take advantage of the Pope’s blessing to help us in the coming football season. As the blessing was given, we remained erect while standing on our left leg and extending our right foot in the direction of His Holiness.

“It paid off. On Dec. 1, we played Army in a sea of mud in Philadelphia. Late in the first quarter, Clark got off a great punt that went out of bounds on Army’s one-yard line. Army punted on first down and the partially blocked punt gave Navy the ball on Army’s 20-yard line. Unable to advance the ball in the quagmire of Franklin Field, we settled for the field goal that held up for the rest of the game.”

After the game, one newspaper dubbed Cutter “the boxing flautist from Oswego,” because he not only excelled in music and football—he was inducted into the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame in 1967—but also won three letters in boxing at the academy. He was eventually crowned collegiate heavyweight boxing champion, and seriously considered, for a time, taking up professional boxing. Until he got a good look at Joe Louis, anyway.

“I saw Louis, and I was pretty objective about it,” Cutter recalled years later. “He was just too good. Why not be honest? I was good in my league, but he was out of my league.”

Instead, Cutter decided to make the Navy his career and then decided to enter the submarine service. He completed the sub training course at New London, Conn. in 1938.

Cutter was serving aboard the USS Pompano on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During three war patrols aboard the Pompano, Cutter learned the submarine warfare trade and also earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat “V,” and a gold star in lieu of a second Silver Star.

The USS Seahorse and her crew, 1944. Commander Slade Cutter is sitting on the deck, center, with his legs crossed. (Little White School Museum photo)

The USS Seahorse and her crew, 1944. Commander Slade Cutter is sitting on the deck, center, with his legs crossed. (Little White School Museum photo)

Cutter was detached from the Pompano in November 1942 and returned to the U.S. to fit out the new USS Seahorse at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. After the Seahorse was commissioned, he was appointed executive officer, moving up to command the sub on Sept. 30, 1943 after the sub’s original commander was found to be insufficiently aggressive.

It was as skipper of the Seahorse that Cutter–who was never accused of being insufficiently aggressive at any time in his life–earned fame as a tough, aggressive, skillful, tactically gifted submariner.

With Cutter in command during the Seahorse’s second war patrol starting from Pearl Harbor in October 1943, the boat sailed to the Japanese held island of Palau, where he intercepted a convoy. During an 80-hour running battle over 600 miles of ocean, the Seahorse managed to sink all three convoy transports while undergoing constant attack by the convoy’s escorts.

When it was over, Cutter had won one of World War II’s most epic naval battles for which he was rewarded with his second gold star for the Navy Cross and gold star he’d won earlier.

In August 1944, Cutter was given a rest from serving at sea and was assigned a staff position with the Atlantic Fleet. He took command of the new sub, USS Requin, in 1945 and was headed back into the Pacific for another war patrol when the Japanese surrendered and the war ended.

Capt. Slade Cutter in a formal portrait taken in 1963. (Little White School Museum photo)

Capt. Slade Cutter in a formal portrait done about 1963. (Little White School Museum photo)

After World War II, Cutter served in a variety of staff and command positions, including head of the physical education department and director of athletics at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957. His battle with the Navy hierarchy during World War II, especially his inability to suffer fools gladly, prevented him from being promoted to admiral. Bad blood between Cutter and Hyman Rickover, which dated back to their days as lieutenants serving aboard battleships, didn’t help either, as Rickover gradually became the face of the new Navy.

Winding down a long and successful career, Cutter returned to Illinois in June 1963 when he was named commander of the U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes. His final Navy stint was as director of the Naval Historical Display Center in Washington, D.C. Cutter retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in July 1965 after 30 years service. He lived the rest of his life close to the Academy at Annapolis before his death on June 9, 2005.

For a complete rundown on Cutter’s life and times, read Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior by Carl LaVo, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2003; and The Reminiscences of Captain Slade D. Cutter, U.S. Navy (Retired), interviewed by Paul Stillwell, U.S. Naval Institute, 1985.

 

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Dodging World War I by pluck and luck

I usually try to separate the topics in my “Reflections” column for the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers from HistoryontheFox, but I think, since this week’s column deals with a major world-wide anniversary, that I’m going to suspend my rule, at least for this week.

World War I began 100 years ago this week, generally said to have started on July 28 when troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire fired on Serbian positions. The attack was the end result of the assassination, exactly a month before, of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian-instigated Bosnian terrorists.

Here in the Fox Valley during the hot summer of 1914, however, Kendall County was consumed by politics and the weather, not war in some far-off place.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt had split with the Republican Party, and his Progressive Party—nicknamed the Bull Moose Party—was on the move. A number of Republicans (including a number here in Kendall County) joined Roosevelt, much to the consternation—and anger—of other GOP stalwarts.

Along with politics, local folks were trying to deal with a brutally hot summer that year, and a lack of rain that had farmers worried about their crops.

So when the crisis, seemingly just one more in a string that stretched back hundreds of years, arose in the Balkans, nobody here paid much attention to it. As much as they tried ignoring what was going on, however, it proved impossible. The assassination touched off a series of complicated and deadly miscalculations by every country in Europe. Although the conflict opened on July 28, it took until Aug. 4 for most of the rest of Europe to become embroiled in a war that eventually spread worldwide.

For a complete account of what happened that fateful summer, read Barbara Tuchman’s seminal The Guns of August, which is available at every library in the country, plus in new electronic formats, especially if you’ve got one of Amazon’s Kindles or have the Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet computer.

Getting back to the topic of this week’s column, though, while the thunder of the guns across the ocean couldn’t be heard here in Kendall County, their effects were certainly felt almost as soon as the firing began. On Aug. 5, Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall observed: “As a result of the warlike conditions existing in Europe, conditions in this country have become unsettled…The New York stock exchange was closed following a similar action by the London board and the trade in securities has been at a standstill. Several brokerage firms have failed and the financial market has been of the frenzied order. American tourists in England and Europe are feeling the effects of this war scare. Money is hard to obtain and they may be forced into a long stay abroad. It is said that over 2,000 Chicagoans are thus stranded. To add to this inconvenience, several Atlantic steamship lines have cancelled their regular trips, and the ships are held in port.”

Nancy "Nannie" Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

Nancy “Nannie” Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

And, indeed, the war’s outbreak was proving a considerable challenge for a former Kendall County resident. Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill grew to adulthood and then taught in Yorkville for several years before taking a teaching job at Aurora’s Oak Street School (now the Mary A. Todd School) in 1902. An outstanding educator, she was tapped to be the school’s principal in 1909.

In the summer of 1914, Hill and Mrs. Alice Eyman, a teacher at the school, left the U.S. on a European excursion. Touring Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Italy, they arrived at Interlaken, Switzerland on July 30. There, they began their preparations for heading back to the U.S., sending their trunks ahead to Liverpool to be put aboard their ride home, the RMS Franconia. The pair planned to follow their trunks with a leisurely rail journey west through Germany, on to Paris, and across the Channel to England where they’d board the Franconia, and sail from Liverpool on Aug. 18.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S.  from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S. from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

But on Aug. 1, Germany, France, and Russia announced they were mobilizing their armies, with Britain following a day later. The quickly expanding war in Europe wrecked the pair’s plans—with armies on the march, their trip back through Germany into France was impossible. To complicate matters, the worldwide financial panic created by the outbreak of war noted by Marshall in the Aug. 4 Record, made it impossible for them to cash the checks they were relying on for funds. Neither the banks, nor the famed Thomas Cook agency would accept checks.

“I hope to never go through a more dismal week than the one which followed,” Hill later recalled.

The two women made common cause with a number of other stranded Americans, organizing themselves into a committee. The two teachers volunteered their clerical skills to record the travelers’ data. The first hurdle, getting everyone’s passports, was crossed, and they began looking for a way around or through the war zone. Larger traveling groups left first, pooling their resources to pay their way into Italy and then back to the U.S. from there.

The increasingly desperate women finally nerved themselves to go the U.S. Consulate in Berne, which they discovered to be in a third floor flat served by a rickety elevator.

“The consul is a plain, everyday, good natured man, who with his two assistants received us most cordially,” Hill recalled. “He declared our checks as good as gold, cashed $50 worth at par for us, and then shaking us each by the hand he bade us ‘cheer up,’ which we immediately proceeded to do.”

With their trunks already sent on to England, the pair only had one suitcase between them, including one pair of shoes each. With all the walking they’d been doing trying to find a way to get back to the U.S., their shoes had been well-used.

“In celebration of our suddenly acquired wealth, we spent one morning in a cobbler’s shop getting our shoes resoled,” Hill recalled. “We had been interested in diamond cutting in Dresden, why not in shoemaking in Interlaken? With feet incased in slippers furnished by the cobbler’s wife, we watched the process of reconstruction with interest and probably profit.”

Now well-shod, and with cash in hand, they made ready to seize whatever opportunities presented themselves. So on Aug. 18, when a note on the bulletin board at the American gathering place advertised a way to England, the pair joined with a group with the right connections to travel through France to the Channel. Normally a 24 hour journey, the trip stretched to four grueling days due to military rail traffic. The journey, Hill said, resembled “nothing so much as riding on the Yorkville electric [trolley line] during the old Chautauqua season. The accommodations were about the same and the crowds equal.”

RMS Alaunia was launched on 9 June 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard for one of the ship’s last civilian voyages since upon the outbreak of World War I, she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

RMS Alaunia was launched on June 9, 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard the nearly new ship for one of her last civilian voyages, since upon the outbreak of World War I she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

From Interlaken, their route was to Berne, on to Geneva, across the Swiss frontier to Dijon, France, and finally to Paris. They reached London on Aug. 22, learning the next day that the Franconia had already sailed. “Nothing daunted, we set out early the following day, resolved either to buy a boat or make one,” the intrepid educator recalled.

Luckily, they found passage on the Cunard Line’s RMS. Alaunia. It proved a nerve-wracking voyage, with wartime conditions enforced aboard, not to mention lack of winter clothing on the freezing North Atlantic, their trunks having already preceded them to Boston.

Eager to get home and back to their jobs, Hill and Eyman reached Quebec on Sept. 5, and then raced southwest to Chicago by train, arriving home on Labor Day, before taking up their jobs once again at Oak Street School.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. "Nannie" Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

For the next few years, the Record wasn’t quite sure what to make of the war raging in Europe. It soon became clear the conflict would not be brief—as all the protagonists had expected—and that the U.S. would eventually be drawn into it.

For her part, the determined Hill went on to become a beloved figure in the West Aurora School District—after her death in 1928, the newly constructed Illinois Avenue School was renamed Nancy L. Hill Elementary School.

But in the late summer of 1914 here in the Fox Valley, all that was in the future; the emphasis was on Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign, and the entertaining tale of a plucky local woman’s trials and perils trying to get back to the good old U.S. of A.

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The passion and the tragedy of William Harkness

By late June 1862, it was becoming clear that the Civil War, begun the previous year when secessionist forces attacked American troops at Fort Sumter, was not going to be the brief conflict most thought. Instead, a series of reverses suffered by the Union Army was leading to deep concern on the part of military and political officials alike.

It was clear many more troops would be needed to put down the rebellion, and on June 30, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order calling for 300,000 additional troops.

Back in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, the large railroad companies based in Chicago hastened to heed the call for troops by raising regiment of infantry. Officially designated the 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the unit was nicknamed “The Railroad Regiment” in honor of its prime backers.

1862 William Harkness

William Harkness in a photographic portrait probably taken after he enlisted in Company H, 89th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but before he reported for duty. (Little White School Museum collection)

When a recruiting team for the 89th reached the Kendall County seat at Yorkville in August 1862, one of those choosing to enlist for three years or the duration of the war—whichever came first—was a well-known, and well-liked solemn young Scots farmer, William “Billy” Harkness. Short, at just 5’ 4”, Harkness had a luxuriant brown beard and calm, gray eyes. He was elected second lieutenant by the men of Company H, almost all of whom were his neighbors in the county.

Harkness was born Dec. 13, 1835 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland, the son of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1840, first settling in New York State. In 1850, Andrew and Janette moved their considerable family, less three grown children who temporarily stayed behind in New York, to Kendall County, Illinois. Ten years later, William married Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart, and the pair settled down on an 80 acre farm at the corner of modern Walker and Immanuel roads in Kendall Township that William had purchased three years earlier. Shortly after their marriage, the couple had a son, Henry Herbert Harkness.

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple's only child, Henry Herbert

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple’s only child, Henry Herbert “Herbie” Harkness. The photo was probably taken at the same time as William’s prewar portrait. (Little White School Museum collection)

William Harkness was a serious, religious man, active in his church. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and was reportedly well thought of by his neighbors. He apparently despised slavery and the culture that nurtured it, and so his decision to serve in the Union Army.

The 89th saw hard campaigning almost from the beginning. As soon as it was mustered, the regiment was sent south to Louisville and with the rest of the Union force, joined the pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army. Having only been in service for four months, the 89th participated in the bloody Battle of Stone’s River, where the commander of Harkness’s Company H was killed in action.

The men of Company H appreciated Harkness’s steady leadership during the battle. According to a letter from Pvt. Joseph Buckley to his wife back home in the Kendall County village of Lisbon, “We have subscribed a Dollar each to buy Lieutenant Harkness a sword as a token of respect for the kindness and manly bearing he has shown to all of us.”

Stone’s River was the start of an extraordinarily tough stretch of campaigning as the men of the 89th fought first at Liberty Gap and then at the bloodbath that was Chickamauga, where a lieutenant colonel, three captains, and a lieutenant were killed in action.

After Chickamauga, the Union Army of the Cumberland was reorganized, and the 89th was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, IV Army Corps. From there it was on to fights at Orchard Knob and then to the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, the 89th was among the American troops that charged up the ridge’s precipitous slopes, driving entrenched Confederates before them. Although victorious, the 89th again lost two officers. But William Harkness was not among them.

In fact, he seemed to be leading a charmed life as he gained the respect of his military peers. When the 89th’s Company B needed a temporary commander, the regimental commander chose Harkness as its temporary commander.

Writing to his brother James from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee on Jan. 6, 1864: “I expect to go back to Company H in a few days as the officers of Company B are coming back.”

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the dawn of 1864, the 89th’s campaigning intensified as Union Gen William T. Sherman began the campaign to destroy Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and capture the Confederate rail and industrial hub of Atlanta, Georgia. And the 89th Illinois seemed to be in the thick of most of the battles as Sherman forced the rebel army back on its heels.

With the hard campaigning, Lt. Harkness’s favor only grew with the men under his command. On April 16, 1864, a letter from a soldier in Company H was published in the Kendall County Record commenting: “Lt. Billy Harkness, everybody’s favorite, is at home on leave of absence–and that he may have a glorious time is the wish of all.”

What the soldiers in Harkness’s company didn’t know was that he was on compassionate leave given the sickness of his only son. Just four days after the laudatory letter was published, Henery Herbert “Herbie” Harkness died at four years of age.

But there was little time to grieve as Sherman’s American army of which the 89th was part continually marched and probed against Johnston’s Confederate forces as he attempted to protect Atlanta.

From May 13-16, the 89th was in the thick of the Battle of Resaca. Although considered a tactical draw, it was a strategic Union victory that forced Johnston to continue withdrawing before Sherman’s advance.

On May 27 west of Marietta, Georgia at Pickett’s Mill, Sherman thought he detected a weakness in Johnston’s deployment, and he ordered Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps, which included the 89th, to attack. Unfortunately for the American forces, the rebels, under Gen. Patrick Cleburne, were well entrenched and awaiting the attack. The result was 1,600 casualties for the American army versus about 600 for the rebels. The 89th lost heavily, but again, Harkness came through without a scratch.

As the anonymous “Soldier H” observed in a letter to the editor of the Kendall County Record: “Capt. Hobbs and Lieut. Harkness, although in the heat of the fray, came off unscathed. These two officers have been in every fight in which the 1st Brigade has taken part and have done their duty as men; they must be ‘bullet proof.'”

As June 1864 arrived, Sherman was slowly but steadily closing the noose around Atlanta and the 89th fought hard at Pine Hill and Lost Mountain.

On June 14, although he didn’t know it, William Harkness was promoted to captain of the 89th’s Company A. At the time, Harkness was fighting in Company H at Pine Hill and then at Lost Mountain as Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, of which the 89th was part, moved toward the southern flank of the Confederates’ Kenesaw Mountain position. By June 21, after another sharp fight the day before, the 89th was busy digging field fortifications—work that Harkness, among other officers, was supervising—to secure the ground they’d just gained.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets. (From the “Kentucky Sharpshooters” page of the First Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade RootsWeb site)

Opposite the American Howard’s IV Corps, Kentucky’s famed 1st Kentucky Brigade—nicknamed the Orphan Brigade—watched the Union troops strengthening their position. The previous winter, the brigade had selected a group of especially good marksmen for special training with precision Kerr Rifles. The Kerr looked nearly identical to standard British-made Enfield rifled muskets, which wasn’t surprising. Kerrs, produced in very limited numbers by the London Armoury Company, had been developed by company superintendent James Kerr. Using a standard Enfield as a base, Kerr improved the rifle’s long range accuracy by reducing the bore from the standard .58 caliber down to .45 caliber. He also introduced an innovative pattern of rifling inside the barrel. Although the new design did, indeed, prove far more accurate over long distances, it also required far more frequent cleaning and performed best with specialized, expensive ammunition, both of which were definite liabilities under combat conditions.

Although less than a dozen Kerrs made it through the Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports to the Orphan Brigade, they proved deadly in trained hands. A contemporary account describing the battles around Atlanta in May 1864 noted the success of the small corps of what were then termed sharpshooters, and what today we’d call snipers: “They were armed with Kerr rifles, English guns, I believe, brought in through the blockade. They were of long range and in the hands of good marksmen did dreadful havoc in the enemy’s ranks. There were but eleven in the brigade, three of them from out regiment (9th Kentucky), chosen for their expert marksmanship. They became a great terror..,for they could kill at much greater range than the infantrymen.”

On June 21, while William Harkness supervised Company H troops who were fortifying their position in case of Confederate counterattack, a Kentucky sniper took careful aim with his precision Kerr Rifle some hundreds of yards away. He waited patiently, and when two American soldiers were in line and exposed, he fired. The bullet entered Pvt. Joseph Buckley’s shoulder, shattering his upper arm before exiting at his elbow and then striking William Harkness in the abdomen.

It was clear from the beginning that his wound was fatal as Harkness was removed to a place of relative safety where he died a few hours later. Buckley survived the wound, managed to keep his arm, and survived the war.

In a letter in the Kendall County Record anonymously signed by “Corporal,” the death of Harkness was described: “I must add the name of Lieutenant William Harkness to those before sent you as among the killed in Company H, during the campaign. He was shot on the Twenty-first of June, the ball striking him in the abdomen and causing his death a few hours later. His usual fortitude sustained him through this last moments and enabled him to write a letter to his wife, although conscious of the nature of the wound and his rapidly approaching end…The ground had been won on which he was shot and he was superintending the erection of barricades to shelter the soldiers who were to hold it.”

Awaiting his death, Harkness scribbled a brief note to Maggie back in Illinois: “My dear Maggie. I am badly wounded, I shall soon be with our dear little Herbie. May God bless you my dear wife. —William.” He died later that day at the age of 29.

William’s body was taken back to Kendall County for burial and a memorial service was held July 24 at the Pavilion Baptist Church. The crowd assembled was far too large for the small church, so they moved them outside to the grove that adjoined the church.

Maggie, having lost both her son and her husband barely a month apart, sold the couple’s farm to other members of the Harkness family. She also fought for a widow’s pension. The Army assured William’s promotion to caption of Company A, although he never served in that capacity, and on Feb. 23, 1865 she received a captain’s widow’s pension, retroactive to the day of William’s death on June 21, 1864.

In September 1866 she married Isaac Wright, a widower 16 years her senior with four children. Two years later, the couple had a son, and soon after that the family moved to Missouri.

We throw the word “hero” around quite a lot these days to the point that using it indiscriminately to describe everyone from Medal of Honor winners to soldiers just doing their jobs, has debased its meaning.

But 150 years ago, during the struggle to save our nation, real heroes seemed to abound, men like William Harkness who did their duty in ways that earned the respect of both their superiors and the men serving under them and who, when he knew he was dying had the fortitude to reassure his wife that his thoughts were of her and their son during his last moments.

Information on the Harkness family came from excerpts of  “The Descendants of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness of Roxburghshire, Scotland” by Elmer George Dickson, 1990, in the collections of the Little White School Museum. For the latest history of the 89th Volunteer Infantry, see “Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-Ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment” by Phillip J. Reyburn, 2012, available on-line through Google.

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Pierre Lamsette, Peter Specie, and the dawn of Kendall County history

Few other figures of Kendall County’s pioneer era were as important to the history of Kendall County as Peter Specie—and yet so little known.

Specie partnered with Steven Sweet in 1830 to settle in the Kendall County grove that soon bore his name. By that time, he was already well known in northern Illinois, and he would soon become an invaluable resource for the county’s earliest settlers.

Born Pierre Marie Pichet Dupre Lamsette on Dec. 11, 1789 at Saint-Charles-Sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, it would be many years before he assumed his familiar local name.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

The business of that region was the fur trade, and young Pierre got involved early on. At age 18, he was recorded working (probably for the American Fur Company) with Joseph Bailey along the St. Joseph River in Michigan, on what was one of the region’s major fur trade routes. The St. Joseph portage to the Kankakee River had been part of the voyageurs’ highway since the 1680s.

In 1820, Specie was reported living along the Mazon River, where he not only engaged in the fur trade, but also dealt in coal, which he had discovered on the land he occupied. It may have been about this time he Anglicized his first name and assumed his new last name. Reportedly, the name “Specie” was given him by his customers because he only accepted hard currency—no credit permitted. And the nickname stuck. When his siblings eventually immigrated to Illinois, they assumed his already well-known name.

By 1825, Specie had moved to Chicago, where he worked a small farm about where Bridgeport is now located and also engaged in the fur trade, which was sometimes more exciting that he may have wished. In September 1829, Specie brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice of the Peace Alexander Doyle in Chicago (which was administered by Peoria County at the time) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians. Specie said he was on his way to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Fredrick Countryman and a half-barrel to Vetal Vermet, both of whom also engaged in the fur trade, when he was set upon near the DuPage River by Pottawatomie Chief Half Day and two warriors. The Indians slashed Specie and got away with some of the whiskey during the incident. Continuing on his way, he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who stole more liquor. Specie estimated his loss at about ten gallons of whiskey.

Specie's claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. This 1876 map shows the grove's relation to Oswego and Yorkville.

Specie’s claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. Specie Grove was separated from its companion, AuSable Grove, by the Big Slough, an ancient Ice Age lake and source of Morgan Creek. This 1876 map shows the grove’s relation to Oswego and Yorkville. (Click to enlarge)

For the next few years, his name appears in various Indian treaties as he pressed claims for goods he claimed were either stolen or destroyed during the Black Hawk War of 1832. After the war, he and Sweet moved back to their Specie Grove claim, but soon split up, Sweet moving to Yorkville before heading farther west to McLean County where he reportedly married.

At Specie Grove, Specie’s claim was centrally located with respect to what would one day become Kendall County. Specie had purchased a primitive sod-breaking plow in Chicago about 1825, and as the 1830s wore on, new settlers hired him to prepare their land for cultivation or rented his plow. He also hired some of those early settlers for various jobs, providing some of the area’s earliest employment.

The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, recounts Specie’s impact on early settler John Shurtliff: “He hired Peter Specie to break seven acres for him, paying him by driving his breaking team one month. Specie had six or seven yoke of oxen, and did breaking and teaming for the settlers.”

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants' tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron blades and wooden mouldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants’ tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron plowshares and wooden moldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Those early breaking plows were uncertain machines, just good enough to do the job. They were generally set to cut four to six inches below the surface and lay over a strip of prairie sod about 16 inches wide. In so doing, the plowshare cut right through the toughest part of the prairie’s root system. Given the relatively high silica content of prairie grass roots and the design of the plowshare itself—generally a wrought iron chisel and share attached to a wooden moldboard—it was hard going and thus the need for so many yokes of oxen to pull the things. When John Deere invented his steel plowshare, he really did revolutionize prairie farming since steel plow blades polish—scour—themselves during use, allowing them to slide and cut through the prairie soil.

When the Minkler family arrived in the area, Specie traded the labor of Peter Minkler and his son, Smith Minkler, on the breaking plow and doing other work for a place to stay while they searched for a permanent claim. Specie also provided Smith Minkler’s first apple seedlings, the basis for Minkler’s famed fruit growing business. According to Hicks, Minkler “…got his first apple trees of Specie, cradling wheat for a dollar a day, and giving the dollar for four trees. Specie had raised them from the seed, and he thus became the pioneer nurseryman of Kendall County.”

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

From those seedlings, Minkler developed his famed Minkler Apple. Based partly on that success, Minkler was one of the founders of the Illinois State Horticultural Society (which is still active today), so Specie can honestly be said to have hand in that, too.

By 1835, Specie’s younger brother, Basil, and his wife and children had arrived in the area and had settled well south of Specie Grove in what is today Felix Township, Grundy County. Apparently Specie decided to sell out and move closer to his brother.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm south of Yorkville.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm just east of Ill. Route 47 south of Yorkville.

Hicks writes that in the summer of 1835: “John L. Clark and John K. LeBarron, after a horseback tour down the river, bought out the renowned Specie, at Specie grove, claim, personal property and all, for $2,000. There were some 15 horses, six yoke of oxen, and 50 hogs, all running at large on the prairie. He said to Clark and LeBarron: ‘This is your boundary through the grove, and southward you will always be open to the Illinois River.’ The old man’s ‘pasture,’ to which he could so calmly give a verbal warranty deed, was 18 miles long, and now supports four or five thousand people.”

Specie lived the rest of his life near his brother, until he died in his cabin on Feb. 22, 1846, well short of his 60th birthday.

In most area histories, Specie gets scant notice and less praise for his contributions to Kendall County’s settlement. But to his credit, Hicks, trying to be an honest reporter of historical facts, gives Specie his due, if somewhat grudgingly: “He was half Indian in his habits, and would as soon eat muskrat as pig, but the early settlers were indebted to him for many acts of kindness, which, sometimes, it must be confessed, were poorly requited.”

Specie is buried in the old Dresden Cemetery south of Morris near his brother, sister, and several nieces and nephews, one of the truly unsung heroes of Fox Valley history.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History