Tag Archives: local history

Everything started somewhere and sometime, even Kendall County

There were big doings 176 years ago next month down in Springfield.

In February 1841, the Illinois General Assembly, in a veritable fit of constructive action possibly never seen before or since, feverishly worked on establishing four new counties. Three new counties had been formed in January; the four ready for approval in February would bring the grand total for 1841 to seven.

Debate on each of the proposals that February was hot and heavy, as Whigs and Democrats maneuvered to get the best advantage possible for their respective parties. When the political dust cleared and a vote was finally held Feb. 19, 1841, the second new county formed that month (the first was Grundy County on Feb. 17) was voted into law.

It was to be named Kendall County after former President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall.

The flood of settlement that began in the Fox Valley in 1833 continued in 1834 and 1835. Enough people made their way to the banks of the Fox River by that year that towns were being surveyed and laid out. Boosters (optimists all) laid out Oswego on the bluff overlooking the Fox River and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek in 1835 as well as Newark in the timber called Hollenback Grove, and Bristol along the north bank of the Fox River. Yorkville, across the river from Bristol, followed in 1836, as did Little Rock, followed by Lisbon and Millington in 1838.

As population increased, so did the need to do business at the county seat. For those living in what eventually became Bristol, Little Rock, and Oswego townships, that meant a long trip north to Geneva in Kane County. For those living in what became Fox, Kendall, NaAuSay, Seward, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships, conducting official business meant a trip down the river and across the prairie to the LaSalle County seat of Ottawa.

Lock 14.jpg

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal at LaSalle. Illinois borrowed heavily to build the canal and the Panic of 1837 nearly bankrupted the entire state. (Illinois Department of Conservation photo)

Added to the inconvenience of travel in the Fox Valley’s pioneer days and in the midst of the area’s biggest spurt in population growth ever (in percentage if not actual numbers), the Panic of 1837 struck like a sledgehammer blow. The word “panic” doesn’t carry the emotional baggage “depression” does these days, but the Panic of 1837 was a major financial depression in its fullest and most devastating sense. Unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, the Panic of 1837 almost led to the financial destruction of state government in Illinois as the nation’s monetary system collapsed.

The financial collapse seriously affected construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The failure of the state’s banking system idled canal construction crews, and the inability of the state to pay contractors for work already done or materials delivered rippled unpleasantly through Ottawa’s economy.

The problems with the canal meant little to settlers around Yorkville, Pavilion, and other northern regions of huge LaSalle County—the proposed canal was out of sight and largely out of mind. The continued preoccupation of county officials with canal matters finally persuaded northern county residents their interests were being ignored, and those interests could best be served by establishing a new county whose seat of government would be much closer, in both geography and attitude, to the governed.

Finding themselves at the neglected far fringes of Kane and LaSalle counties, and still feeling the bond with each other forged during the crisis of the Black Hawk War of 1832, residents of the nine townships decided to petition the state to form a brand new county.

Acting on these convictions, supporters of forming one or more new counties at the expense of LaSalle began to circulate petitions. As early as Oct. 10, 1840, the Illinois Free Trader, Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, published a legal notice informing the county’s residents “That application will be made in the Legislature of the state of Illinois…for the formation of a new county to be taken off of the county of LaSalle.”

The petition given credit by the Illinois State Archives as the one leading to the establishment of Kendall County began circulating on Nov. 12, 1840.

“The petitions of the Subscribers, inhabitants of LaSalle, DeKalb, and Kane counties,” the appeal read, “most respectfully Showeth that your petitioners suffer much inconvenience in doing all their business relative to their respective counties By reason of the great Territory embraced in the said countys and believing that the time has now arrived when it has been made absolutely necessary that a new county be Laid off of those.”

The document was signed by 109 male settlers, including such early Kendall County pioneers as Clark and George Hollenback, Earl Adams, Joseph B. Lyon, and Henry Misner,

As proposed by the petitioners, the new county would have comprised nine townships. Since townships are supposed to be square (and contain 36 sections of one square mile each), the proposed county would have had three tiers of townships, each row three townships long, comprising a perfectly square county.

As originally requested, Bristol, Little Rock, Kendall, Fox, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships in today’s Kendall County would have been joined by Sandwich Township from DeKalb County plus Northfield and most of Mission townships in LaSalle County.

Sober second thoughts…

The request for the new county apparently stirred up a number of competing factions, only some of which can be reconstructed a century and three-quarters. On Nov. 27, 1840, the General Assembly received a second petition from residents of the area that contended “there are sundry petitions now circulating to present to your honourable body for the division of Lasalle County and that many of those petitions were got up for private and Selfish purposes without references to publick good and convenience or benift and if those proposed divisions were carried out they would Material prejudice the remaining part of Lasalle county without any particular advantage or benefit to them Selves….”

1839-northern-ill-counties

How LaSalle and Kane counties looked in 1840 before LaSalle’s east side was sliced off and Kane lost its southern three townships to create Kendall and Grundy counties.

Then in a petition dated Dec. 18, 1840, several times the number of LaSalle County residents than signed the first document pleaded with the General Assembly not to dismantle LaSalle County. If a new county was absolutely necessary, however, the petitioners suggested removing the four southwest townships, known then as Sandy Precinct, would be acceptable.

“Your petitioners, inhabitants of La Salle county, represent that divers petitions are in circulation, praying for various divisions of said county and in such a manner as virtually to ruin the same,” the third petition read. “Some of your petitioners have signed heretofore other addresses on this subject, without defining boundaries, and some without due examination, but now present this their prayer as the result of their ‘sober second thoughts.’”

The petition carried the names of many of the area’s influential men, including Peter and Smith Minkler, William W. Winn, John Inscho, Solomon Heustis, and William Cowdrey.

Sober second thoughts aside, the wheels of state government had already begun to turn, and the division of LaSalle County was inevitable. As noted in another context entirely, the wheels of state government move slowly but they grind extremely fine. On Dec. 30, 1840, State Rep. Dodge rose in the Illinois House to present, in the words of the Journal of the House of Representatives of the Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Illinois (1840), “the petitions and remonstrance of sundry citizens of LaSalle and Kane counties; which, without reading, on his motion were referred to a select committee.” Committee members included Reps. Dodge, McClernand, and Ormsbee. On Jan. 11, 1841, the petition for a new county was referred to the General Assembly’s Committee on Counties. Then on Jan. 16, Rep. Carpenter reported a bill titled “An act to create the county of Orange” for its first reading.

The new county was configured differently than the one the citizens’ petition of Nov. 12 had suggested. Instead of including what is today Sandwich Township of DeKalb County and Mission and Northfield townships of LaSalle County, the new county was shifted east one township, picking up Oswego Township from Kane County and NaAuSay and Seward townships from LaSalle to complete the nine-township square county.

The Committee on Counties probably shifted the boundary to straighten up the lines of the two donor counties. If the configuration had remained as originally petitioned, Oswego Township would have thrust like a lone tooth south from Kane County, while NaAuSay and Seward would have created a clumsy narrow finger jutting north from LaSalle County.

Although Sandwich Township was denied membership in the new county, efforts have sporadically been engaged in over the past 175-plus years by that township’s residents to annex to Kendall County. So far, those efforts have not been successful, although many Sandwich area residents still feel more of an affinity to Kendall County than to DeKalb.

old-state-capitol

The state capitol building at Springfield was less than two years old when the Illinois General Assembly voted to create Kendall County. Today, the building is a state historic site.

From Orange to Kendall…

In the end, the General Assembly decided to create two new counties from LaSalle, and Democrats in Springfield were working hard to make sure the new counties would carry the names of politicians prominent in their party. One of the counties was named Grundy after U.S. Senator Felix Grundy of Tennessee, a Jackson stalwart. But the decision to name the other county after one of Jackson’s closest political operatives led to some tougher sledding.

On Jan. 19, the bill to create Orange County received its second reading. After reading the bill’s title, Rep. Peck moved to amend the bill by changing the name of the county from “Orange” to “Kendall.” The amendment was approved, with Rep. Abraham Lincoln voting in favor.

The new name was selected to honor Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General under both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Kendall had announced his plans to retire from the office in May 1840 in order to seek more profitable employment. As Jackson’s and Van Buren’s Postmaster General, Kendall had been the Democrats’ patronage chief, handing out sought-after post master slots. In effect, local post offices became Jackson’s grassroots eyes throughout the nation. But in his favor, Kendall brought a new level of efficiency and honesty to the Post Office Department, even operating the sprawling agency at a profit for a few years while stamping out rampant corruption. Not surprisingly, the powerful Kendall was not well liked by the Whig opposition.

To illustrate that political hi-jinks are nothing new in Springfield, following the successful vote amending the name of the county to Kendall, Rep. Gillespie rose to further amend the bill by inserting the words “Honest Amos” in front of the word Kendall.

1835 Amos Kendall.jpg

Postmaster General Amos Kendall in an 1835 engraving. Kendall was one of the most powerful politicians in both the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations.

Gillespie’s move echoed sentiments expressed during an 1837 Congressional debate in Washington, D.C. when U.S. Rep. Henry A. Wise of Virginia branded the Postmaster General “Honest Iago” Kendall during a particularly nasty debate over the nation’s financial policy. Iago was the friend of Othello in Shakespeare’s play who whispered lies about the doomed Desdimona. Wise intimated that Kendall was doing the same thing to President Jackson regarding the nation’s financial health. The insult apparently appealed to the anti-Democrats, only to be brought up again in Illinois during the debate to establish Kendall County.

Gillespie’s amendment was tabled, however, and the new county—just plain Kendall County—was established by a vote of 54-27.

Writing from the state capital, the Illinois Free Trader’s Springfield correspondent reported to his readers in Ottawa: “Gentlemen—Today the bill for the creation and organization of the two new counties off of LaSalle and Kane came up in order in the House. Some debate arose on a motion made by Mr. Peck, to change the name of the county formed of Part of LaSalle and Kane counties from “Orange” to “Kendall,” but the motion prevailed and the bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading. The bill to organize the county of “Grundy” was referred to the canal committees…These counties, you are probably aware, will include a strip off of the east side of LaSalle eighteen miles in width and one tier of townships of the south end of Kane county.”

On Feb. 3, the act to create the county of Kendall was passed for the final time by the House, and was sent to the Senate for its concurrence.

In the Illinois Free Trader’s Feb. 4 edition, the paper’s Springfield correspondent gloomily predicted: “The bills for the division of our fine county will pass and Kendall and Grundy be established in all probability. However much I may regret that the county has been divided at this time, and under its embarrassed circumstances at this time, no blame can be attached to our representative and senator who have been most fully instructed in relation to it.”

His prediction proved correct when, after successfully passing the state senate, the county was officially created by an act of the General Assembly on Feb. 19, 1841.

1841-courthouse-by-janis-hoch

A pen and ink sketch by Janis Hoch of Kendall County’s first courthouse in 1841. The county rented the private residence from Daniel Johnson. County voters decided to move the courthouse to Oswego in an 1845 referendum. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County inaugurated…

County government began in earnest on April 5, 1841, when voters, in the first-ever Kendall County election, elected a sheriff, coroner, recorder, surveyor, treasurer, probate justice, clerk, and three county commissioners—the precursor of today’s county board.

Later that year, a three-man commission appointed by the General Assembly, consisting of John H. Harriss of Tazwell County, Eli A. Rider of Cook County, and William E. Armstrong of LaSalle County, met in Yorkville to determine the location of the new county’s seat of government. The three decided that Yorkville, with its central location, would be the best site. In August 1841, county officials leased a private residence owned by Daniel Johnson, situated on Lot 8, Block 15 in the village of Yorkville as the county’s first courthouse, and then appropriated the grand sum of $30 to “fit up” the new facility.

oswego-courthouse

This image of the Greek Revival courthouse built at Oswego in 1847 probably began as a Daguerrotype before it was heavily retouched. It stood on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

Since that time 176 years ago, the county seat has moved twice, once in 1845, when the voters decided to move it northeast to Oswego, and again in 1864.

In 1845 after 175 registered voters petitioned the General Assembly, a special election was scheduled to determine whether the county seat should remain in Yorkville. Proponents of the move noted that Oswego Township had been the county’s most populous for several years. Further, they pointed out that Yorkville didn’t even have its own post office. To get their mail, residents had to cross a footbridge across the Fox River to the Village of Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville). In balloting in August of that year, no county village received a majority of votes as the new county seat. In a second referendum held on Sept. 1, 1845, the voters picked Oswego as the new county seat.

In April 1847, the county commissioners let a contract for $2,545 to Luke W. Swan to build a new courthouse in Oswego. Festus Burr, an Oswegoan who was also the town clerk, drew the plans for the two story, Greek Revival style building, which was located on the site of today’s Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office.

2015-kc-courthouse

Opened in 1864 during the Civil War, the Historic Kendall County Courthouse was renovated and restored with extensive federal and state grants.

But by April 1859, most residents had apparently tired of traveling to the extreme northeast corner of the county to do their legal business, and another vote was held, the results of which were to move the county seat back to centrally-located Yorkville.

A new courthouse was ordered built by the county board, and architect O.S. Finnie was hired to draw the plans for a fashionable Italianate style structure. The brick and stone courthouse was completed in 1864 at a cost of $22,051.62. The county’s records were removed from Oswego to Yorkville in June 1864 by team and wagon where they’ve remained ever since.

The decision of those 109 settlers to strike off on their own in 1841 was as important then as it is today, 176 years later. They wanted to control their own local political destinies, and so do we. They achieved their goal; it remains to be seen if we are interested enough to maintain what they built, locally, statewide, and, especially, nationally.

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

The days when the Rawleigh man came to call…

Back not all that many years ago, grocery stores were places where you went to buy mostly staples–flour, dried beans, rice, sugar, salt, meat, perhaps canned fruit. You didn’t have to go to the store for the other things, from bread to milk to vitamins to ice cream, since they were brought to your door by the bread, milk, and sundry companies.

Out on the farm, for instance, we got our bread from the Omar Bread man, milk came from our cow, Daisy; ice cream came from the ice cream man; and spices, vitamins and useful potions and ointments came from the Rawleigh man. All my mother had to do was to be home during the day (which, being a farm wife, she was) and the stuff was delivered right to our door.

There were also a number of other door-to-door salesmen that worked rural areas. Down at the Little White School Museum, we have copies of a series of diaries written by a farm family in the first decade of the 20th Century. One of the diarists, the farm wife who lived near the Kane-Kendall border in the Hinckley-Little Rock-Plano area, noted on a bi-weekly basis that the “tea man” had been to the farm. It could have been the National Tea Company representative or the Jewel Tea Company man; she didn’t say. It would have been interesting if she would have listed what she bought from the tea man, who usually provided a variety of products from coffee and tea to other sundry items.

Rawleigh's Ointment

Every Rawleigh family had at least one round, blue tin of Raleigh’s Ointment on hand for those minor scrapes, scuffs, and bruises.

We didn’t order from the tea man when I lived on the farm, but some neighbors did. We did, however, order from the Rawleigh man. You were, my sister once reminded me, either a Rawleigh famil’y or a Watkins family. It was sort of like farmers and their cars. My dad was a Chevy man (he’d had a Model T in 1919, and vowed never to own another of Henry Ford’s products), but his friend and fishing buddy Howard Gengler was a Ford man, and they used to kid each other unmercifully.

And our extended family were all Rawleigh people, too. Every so often, the Rawleigh man would arrive in our farm driveway in what I later learned was called a panel truck with the Rawleigh logo painted in gold on the side. In our kitchen, he would open his multi-layered case and display the most fascinating variety of things ranging from bottles of vanilla extract to Rawleigh’s ointment and salve to vitamins. And best of all, there was always a small packet of gum for me.

Many years later, we went to a relative’s wedding and my mother saw someone sitting at the next table that she knew, but couldn’t immediately place. Turned out to be the Rawleigh man. Why, she asked, was he there?

“I’ve been their Rawleigh man for years,” he explained, and for him that’s all there was to it.

Omar Bread truck

Omar Bread we got; pastries not so much since my mother was an excellent baker. And we got quite a bit of bread, too, because unlike my grandmother, my mother could not abide stale bread.

Our bread man delivered Omar Bread, but my grandmother, who lived about three miles down the road, signed up with the Peter Wheat Bread man instead. She made the most wonderful homemade bread, but my grandfather liked the store-bought variety better, so the bread man delivered. The best thing was the bread man also carried a variety of sweet rolls and donuts in the big metal basket he used to lug from his truck to the house. We didn’t get many of those treats, both because my father was battling diabetes and my mother could out-bake any bread company, but my grandmother did. She loved those “boughten” cinnamon rolls. Even stale, they tasted just fine (and they usually were stale because Grandma didn’t throw anything out; you ate it until it was gone).

Peter Wheat Bread comic.jpg

Walt Kelly, later of “Pogo” fame, drew the Peter Wheat comics and other books. While not the most interesting to read, they were fine for a youngster looking for any literary port in a storm.

The best thing about Grandma’s Peter Wheat Bread man, though, was that he dropped off colorful Peter Wheat comic books. Granted, they weren’t the most interesting comic books, but for me, a kid who spent an inordinate amount of time reading, they were an absolute treat.

We had a very productive Guernsey cow (the aforementioned Daisy) for milk. After she was sold off we picked up our milk in glass jugs at The Fruit Juice House, one of the local fruit juice and dairy products chains’ stores on what was then the Lincoln Highway on Aurora’s far east side. And every once in a great while, we’d get one of those delicious Fruit Juice House malts.

My grandparents, though, had no cow and so bought their milk in dark brown bottles from the Lockwood Dairy man who drove the farm neighborhood route from the firm’s headquarters in Plainfield. Although my grandparents didn’t have a cow, Grandma was as good at making butter from the cream our cow, Daisy, produced, as she was at baking bread. Freshly baked bread with freshly churned, salted, and worked butter might not have been heaven, but it was awfully close. Daisy’s excess milk, sans cream, was taken over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who magically turned it into truly excellent cottage cheese.

Later, when we moved to town, Oatman’s milk was delivered to our door from their dairy in Aurora. Besides milk, cottage cheese, cream, and other dairy products were brought to our door by our milkman.

The delivery of bread, milk, and other such stuff was a regular feature of life in the Midwest’s small towns and rural areas from the 1930s through the 1960s before economics and the advent of “convenience” stores killed off such house-to-house service.

And in the case of the big tea companies, house-to-house and farm-to-farm deliveries started long before motor vehicles were invented to make the rounds. Some house-to-house delivery services are apparently making a comeback, especially milk deliveries. We haven’t seen a bread man making the rounds though, but the Schwanz Ice Cream man does travel routes around town making home deliveries as the company has for decades.

Basically, though, getting groceries and other products is on your own these days without the interface of a company representative extolling the virtues of, say, Rawleigh liniment or Watkins’ salve, in the comfort of our own homes. Not many of us are home during the day nowadays anyway, so it probably wouldn’t be a money-maker for aspiring door-to-door tea men and women. It’s hard to tell if this difference is better or worse than the way things used to be—but a person has to admit it definitely is a difference.

 

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Mother Nature, economics conspired to afflict area farmers in 1934…

In terms of numbers of people affected economically, 1933 was the worst year in Kendall County history. But 1934 didn’t provide much, if any, relief for county residents dealing with the profound effects of the Great Depression. In fact, bad just kept getting worse.

Not only was the nation dealing with the horrendous financial effects of the Great Depression, but severe drought was destroying farms and farmers all over the country. The drought, driven by hot, dry weather over a period of several months, resulted in the formation of severe dust storms that blew up out of the high, dry western plains and then surged east all the way to Washington, D.C., where a bewildered government was attempting to deal with the effects of dual nationwide financial and ecological disasters.

The Depression had begun with the stock market crash of October 1929, and from then on conditions got progressively and steadily worse over the next four years. Even so, the feeling of much of the country was that things would get better soon if only everyone would buck up and a little confidence in the country’s future. That was the course President Herbert Hoover had urged in the face of near-total economic collapse before everyone had enough and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

On Dec. 27, 1933, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall was still urging his readers to make 1934 a better year by the power of positive thinking:

“Few of us want to start 1934 with anything but a firm belief that the new year holds better things for us. We shouldn’t start the new year with a feeling that things will be worse. To do this will insure a bad year…Success is a result of your own efforts so if 1934 proves a disappointment, look to your own efforts before blaming anyone else for your bad luck.”

Milk Strike

Members of the Pure Milk Association dump milk before it could get to a non-member dairy in Harvard, Illinois sometime in the 1930s. The successful “Milk Strike” led to organizing farmers to get higher prices for their milk.

Positive thinking in place, the hits unfortunately just kept on coming. Farm commodity prices got so bad that notoriously independent farmers were finally starting to band together (as their urban worker countrymen already had) to demand more. Dairy farmers, for instance, who had formed the Pure Milk Association were conducting a milk strike, stopping trucks hauling milk from non-PMA members to Chicago dairies.

The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:

“As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [today’s U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch… After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.”

While farmers were in bad straits, so were their city cousins. In order to create paying jobs for some of the working men thrown out of work by the Depression, the Roosevelt Administration’s new Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration was financing projects throughout the nation including right here in Kendall County, including bridge and road work. In February, even the Record’s editor, a firm Republican, had to grudgingly admit the government help seemed to be working:

May 13, 2010. Photo by Margaret Gienger.

Often derided as “make-work,” Works Progress Administration projects were sometimes literal lifesavers for the families of unemployed workers hired for them. In 1934, Oswego’s Little White School, now the Little White School Museum, was jacked up and a basement dug beneath it to provide more space as a WPA project, one of many throughout Kendall County.

“We drove on the East River road [modern Ill. Route 25] out of Aurora the other night and hardly knew the road. The work of the men on the CWA has made a real highway out of it. Some bad curves have been made safer by leveling off the banks on the side of the road. Good work, men.”

Meanwhile, the area’s farmers were hoping against hope that both luck and the weather would change in their favor. On April 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent commented: “The farmers have begun working in the fields with renewed hope that this year’s crops will at least afford them a living and cash for taxes and interest on their debts.”

Overcoming their aversion to government meddling in their business, virtually all of the county’s 1,080 farmers agreed to participate in the Agriculture Adjustment Administration’s corn and hog program. The AAA was another of Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” formed to fight the depression.

But extremely dry conditions persisted throughout Kendall County and in April the Record reported:

1934 May 11 Dust Storm

This dust storm, pictured west of the Mississippi, roared all the way from the Great Plains to the Eastern seaboard on May 11, 1934. An even more destructive storm had hit the central United States the previous month. Dust from the plains blew through Kendall County, where some of it precipitated out of the air and sifted across the landscape, filling ditches and infiltrating into homes.

“Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the winter time. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”

Those conditions not only hindered crop growth, but also contributed to the ongoing plague of chinch bugs. According to the Record:

“The estimate of W.P. Flint, state entomologist, that chinch bugs would be five times as plentiful this spring as a year ago has come true. Damage to wheat fields and even oats by dry weather and chinch bugs is causing many farmers to plan re-seeding some of their grain fields to soybeans.”

The weather proved not only dry, but also extremely erratic. Excessive heat and drought not apparently being enough for Mother Nature, newly sprouted farm crops as well as gardens were devastated by destructive late May frosts, the Record reporting that:

“Two hard frosts last week worked havoc with the fruit and gardens. The corn, just nicely started, turned brown in many places and potatoes froze to the ground. Many farmers are planting over.”

Chinch Bug

Dry, hot conditions during the early 1930s led to an explosion in the chinch bug population. Tens of millions of the insects destroyed thousands of acres of crops in Illinois including in Kendall County in the days before effective pesticides were developed.

Then following the frosts the week before, new heat records were set May 31 and June 1 and on June 4 another dust storm hit. Meanwhile, “Thousands of miles of [chinch bug] barriers have been built as a result of demonstrations staged by county farm advisers, the extension service of the college of agriculture and the Illinois State Natural History Survey,” the Record reported.

Also in June, the federal government began to come to the rescue, announcing a drought relief program. To be eligible farmers had to certify they were in need of feed and seed to maintain their families, and also had to swear they were unable to supply sufficient feed and seed for himself. County officials estimated that while things weren’t good, few farmers fit that description, but it turned out, astonishingly enough, more than 20 percent of the county’s farmers applied for and really did qualify for emergency federal drought relief.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau and the federal government provided chinch bug eradication supplies, and county farmers kept battling whatever Mother Nature and the financial industry could throw at them. But it wasn’t until several years passed that they and their city brothers were able to get their heads above water again, thanks to their own collective action and an often grudgingly accepted hand up from Uncle Sam.

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Science stuff

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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And plank roads seemed like such a good idea, too…

Elon Musk and his Tesla autos have been in the news lately, and not all in a good way. Apparently there’s a self-driving feature on the newest Teslas that perhaps ought to be called a ‘self-driving’ feature, especially after a Tesla recently drove itself right under a semi, killing the Tesla driver.

Tesla’s now warning owners that “self-driving” isn’t exactly full auto-pilot, but rather that it’s probably helpful if drivers pay at least minimal attention to where their cars are going. Which sounds like the kind of advice adults really shouldn’t need to be given.

A lot of work is going into creating self-driving cars these days, and not just by Musk’s Tesla. But Duncan Black, one of my favorite bloggers, is skeptical, and I think he’s right to be.

The good thing about self-driving cars, of course, is that they’d use the same ground transportation foundation that manual driving cars use, with no need to create any new infrastructure for them to use. So in that way this latest bit of transportation technology growth somewhat mirrors the thinking behind the growth of plank roads back in the first half of the 19th Century.

Starting in the late 1840s, railroad companies were established to tap the huge northern Illinois agricultural market, with the eventual goal being to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River, a transcontinental rail line then only the vision of a few dreamers. But in order to get on the way to the Big Muddy, they first had to start by crossing northern Illinois’ Fox River.

Not that the railroad promoters looked at the Fox River Valley as simply an obstacle to be dealt with, of course. The area was then, as now, an extremely rich agricultural area. Livestock and grain flowed east to Chicago from the farms that dotted the prairies in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in a broad band stretching around the growing city on the lake to the west and south. And finished goods, lumber, and other items made the return trip west, all on the terrible, inadequate roads of the era.

What farmers wanted to do was get their livestock and grain to the lucrative, fast-growing market Chicago had become. Livestock could be driven to the stockyards (we think of cattle drives as western happenings, but they took place right here in Kendall County, too), but grain had to be hauled. Chicago was such a market draw that farmers as far west as Rockford, and even Iowa, drove horse-drawn wagon loads of corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the growing market. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done, though at a relatively high cost in both time and materials.

Because of the already heavy investment in horse-drawn transport, it made sense to a lot of the strongest boosters in the Fox and DuPage River valleys to improve the area’s roads instead of investing in a completely new form of transportation technology like railroads.

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

Like many companies in the early 19th Century, the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company issued their own currency. Using the stuff was chancy at best, but in an era when recovery from the contractionary policies of the Andrew Jackson administration had destroyed the nation’s economy, it was sometimes any port in a monetary storm.

The investment was not just in horses and wagons, either. Inns and taverns along the major roads in the area, blacksmith and farrier shops, wagon makers, wheelwrights, farms that raised draft horses, veterinary facilities, farmers who grew the fodder and oats needed to feed those thousands upon thousands of horses, and all the other myriad things that made the system work was woven into the very fabric of that period’s life.

As a result, when railroad entrepreneurs began seeking routes from Chicago to the west, they ran into opposition in more than one community as local businessmen tried to keep their personal financial apple carts from overturning.

The story of Oswego’s decision to forego participation in the railroad projected to extend from Turners Junction—West Chicago—south and west across the Fox River is well known, locally at least. Oswego’s city fathers said thanks but no thanks to the railroad, which crossed the river at Aurora instead. Why did they do something that seems to us to be such a silly thing? Because they firmly believed improved roads, not railroads, were the answer to the region’s transportation dilemma.

Plank road sketch

Plank roads were built by laying down logs spaced closely together, and then topping them with two stringers. Thick planks 10 to 12 feet long were then fastened to the stringers. Plank roads worked well when new, but deteriorated quickly in northern Illinois’ climate.

In those years, roads—which were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie—turned into long stretches of impassable sticky soup every spring and after every hard rain. The availability of timber, however, meant it was possible to pave with thick wooden planks to create an all-weather surface. Such plank roads quickly became popular ways of getting crops to market. Typically, plank road companies would be formed after being chartered by the state legislature. Stock would be sold to raise money and the road would be built, with tolls charged to use the all-weather surface.

One such plank road was projected to extend from Chicago to Naperville and then on to Oswego. Capt. Joseph Naper, founder and namesake of Naperville, was one of the major promoters of that plank road. He used his considerable influence to keep the railroad from passing through Naperville, and it’s not unlikely he also persuaded Oswego officials to oppose the rail line crossing the Fox River at Oswego. Naper, like other men of substance at that time, had interests in hotels and taverns, as well as in several other aspects of road transportation, including lots of plank road company stock.

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Then there was the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company, established in the late 1840s, with the aim of extending a plank road from Oswego to Joliet, and from there due east across Will County to Indiana. Promoters and officers of the plank toll road read like a roll call of early Joliet business and political leaders, including Illinois Governor-to-be Joel Matteson.

According to Joliet railroad historian, Bill Molony, the O&IPR Company’s survey for the road’s route was completed in May 1851 and the right-of-way was obtained. According to Molony, the section from Plainfield to Joliet was opened in 1852 or 1853. Travel on that stretch was heavy, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the road would quickly be extended west to Oswego. And, in fact, work started on the stretch west of Plainfield to Oswego, but funding quickly dried up as the newfangled railroad was proving to be not only feasible but also faster and more economical even than plank road traffic.

In the end, of course, the enthusiasm for plank roads turned out to be a blunder. Steam engines didn’t require oats or horseshoes and they didn’t get tired or die while working hard in hot Illinois summers. They could run all day and all night, rain or shine, winter or summer. Once the classic “I” shaped steel rail was perfected, maintenance on rail lines became a relatively minor part of the entire cost of transporting goods. Not so plank roads, which required constant maintenance and even then the surface often proved unreliable. Broken planks damaged wagons and often injured or even killed horses.

By the late 1850s, rails not roads were seen to be the transportation wave of the future. But the damage to local economies had already been done. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, an early settler writing under the pen name “Plow Boy,” reported that:

“In 1850, a [rail] road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That a plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads.”

As a result of this misplaced faith, Naperville didn’t get a rail link to Chicago until the mid-1860s, and Oswego and Yorkville didn’t get their rail links until 1870. At least Naperville’s rail line was a main line link; Oswego’s and Yorkville’s was a spur line.

To us, with the advantage of 20/20 historical hindsight, the decision to refuse participation in extending rail lines, but instead to champion plank roads seems crazy. But at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable and justified by the economic imperatives of the day. The challenge has never been to look back to see what we’ve done wrong; it’s always been to try to look ahead and figure out which of the available options is the right one.

 

 

 

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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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