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Once you could get it all at Sears…

Back in 1992, just as the world was on the cusp of the Internet revolution, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced the elimination of their “Big Book” catalog as a cost saving measure. It was a decision that perfectly illustrated the shortsightedness of big business.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

Not only did they leave the business of selling everything to everyone just as the Internet was giving that particular business model new life, but also, with that announcement, a living link to the nation’s past died.

The Sears catalog was a godsend to farm families and pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether they lived on the desolate plains of Nebraska and Kansas or in the prosperous farming communities of Illinois and Indiana, rural families could buy just about anything else rural life required from the Sears catalog.

Gradually, the breadth of items included in the catalog was trimmed, and special catalogs were introduced. For instance, the Farm and Ranch catalog of 1992 included a lot of stuff that used to be included in the Big Book.

Financial analysts complained the Big Book had no focus. Unlike L.L. Bean (clothes) or Cabella’s (sporting goods), the Big Book offered a bit of everything for almost everyone. And that breadth of offerings apparently made the bean counters nervous.

Of course there was no ‘focus!’ The Big Book was the place you looked when you couldn’t find something anywhere else. Need a water heater? How about home nursing equipment? Need a swing set or bikes for the kids (or yourself)? Swimming pool? Auto parts? Furnace? The Big Book had it all and then some.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

In the fall of 1900, Sears published such a wildly comprehensive selection that many of the items are prohibited by law these days. For instance, in the drug section, Sears promised to cure—not just treat—morphine and opium addiction (there were apparently quite a few folks who couldn’t “Just Say No” 116 years ago, either), asthma (called catarrh back then), alcoholism (“Our 50 Cent Liquor Habit Cure”), Dr. Echols’ Australian cure for heart trouble, and my favorite, their all-purpose “60-Cent Nerve and Brain Pills” which were guaranteed to cure you if you felt “generally miserable.”

What great stuff! Today, the Food and Drug Administration or some other such wet blanket would rule the medicines (1) had no curative values at all, and (2) they would probably cause more problems than they would help. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy something that guaranteed a cure, even if you just felt “generally miserable? ”

You could buy (young freckled ladies, please note) “Lily White Face Wash” for 40 cents. And you could not only buy watches of all prices, but you could buy an amazing 166 watchmaking tools in case you wanted to build one yourself.

There were rings, and silverware, and excellent clocks of all shapes and sizes.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

And guns. Boy, could you buy guns in 1900. There were lever-action Winchesters like the Rifleman used on TV, fine L.C. Smith double barreled shotguns, and three pages of handguns, ranging from .22 to .38 caliber. Our modern fascination with military-style weapons is nothing new—the catalog included a Harrington and Richardson “Automatic Bayonet Revolver,” which was included that year, the copywriter explained, because of the “many inquiries for a bayonet revolver” the company had received.

You could buy handcuffs or a beekeeper’s hat and net and smoker or fishing equipment, or a complete darkroom and camera outfit. And for just $54, you could purchase a complete stereopticon magic lantern show on the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, there were the clothes. Oh, the outerwear was popular (in fact, it’s amazing how much a man’s suit from 1900 looks like one from the 1960s Beatle era), but it’s no secret that the boys of that day and age used the Sears catalog to find out just what women looked like under all those clothes they wore. There on page 572 are a bevy of fetching young women dressed in (gasp!) tight- fitting Union suits! And on page 682 is the ever-popular display of summer corsets.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

There were chests of tools, tombstones, iceboxes, cast iron stoves, horsedrawn carriages and harnesses—you name it.

In fact, Sears became the world’s largest retailer not by having a ‘focus’ but by offering things people needed and wanted—strangely enough, Sears’ focus was their customers. What a concept! And the ad copy was cleverly written to make sure everyone ended up wanting something.

By the last winter it was published, the Big Book had grown to 1,640 pages from 1900’s 1,120 pages and a Yuppy lady on the front of 1992’s fall-winter Big Book replaced the stylized barefoot lady with flowing robes on the 1900 book. But the 1992 Big Book still contained an awesome collection of clothing, appliances, tools, and just plain neat stuff.

The “New Home Cabinet Organ” of 1900 had given way to 1992’s electronic keyboards and “The Optigraph or Moving Picture Machine” had made way for the video camera. But the bicycles were still there (starting on page 1444), as were the women’s corsets (called “Support Garments” in 1992 and starting on page 205), although young fellows can see a lot more skin nowadays on daytime soap operas than in Big Book ad copy.

The company, I believe, began its slow decline when the accountants took control of the business from salesmen. After all, Richard Warren Sears started out in 1886 by selling watches no one else wanted, while Alvah Curtis Roebuck began by repairing watches for Sears. By 1891, the pair were publishing a catalog (with all the ad copy written by Sears) and by 1894, Sears and Roebuck had become the nation’s shopkeeper. Their success was driven both by the sales genius of Sears, helped along by the U.S. Government’s institution of Rural Free Delivery. With the introduction of RFD, mail orders were delivered right to the mailbox out in front of every farmhouse in America instead of to the post office where customers had to go pick them up. It’s an eerily similar situation to the success on-line retailers like Amazon have realized making use of the Internet, another government developed and encouraged communications innovation.

R.W. Sears made millions not by watching the bottom line, but by giving people what they wanted or what they thought they wanted. With the guys from the business end now in charge, Sears has been in financial trouble for years. The company’s destructive corporate culture has already nearly eliminated Kmart as a viable company and seems well on its way to destroying R.W. Sears’ brainchild.

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Were Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe from Illinois?

The late 1950s were the heyday of television westerns, and one of the most popular during that era was “Bonanza,” the tale of fictional Ponderosa Ranch owned by the Cartwright family—father Ben (a widower) and sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

Was the Cartwright family of "Bonanza" fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be...

Was the Cartwright family of “Bonanza” fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be…

Their spread was located in the mountains near Nevada’s Lake Tahoe, where the family earned their living logging, raising cattle and selling supplies to the miners working on the huge silver strike called the Comstock Lode.

Lots of people enjoyed the interaction between the three brothers and their father, and the rest of the cast of characters, from the Chinese cook Hop Sing to Virginia City Sheriff Roy Coffee. So many, in fact, that “Bonanza” was number one in the ratings for four years running. It’s still playing in syndication.

What has interested me for years now is whether or not the saga of the Cartwrights might not have been, in part at least, based on a real-life family from Illinois that emigrated west in the 1840s. The patriarch of that family would have been well known to Kendall County’s pioneer settlers—by reputation if nothing else.

When the son of William and Katherine (Devers) Winters was born in 1794 in Pennsylvania, they named him John Devers Winters, his middle name honoring his mother’s family. Little is known of his early life, but he eventually arrived in Illinois, probably from the South. Former U.S. Secretary of State Elihu B. Washburne writing 30 years after the fact, said he believed Winters came “from either Kentucky or Tennessee,” before settling in northern Illinois with his wife, Elizabeth. Winters’ first son, Theodore, was born in Illinois in 1823. Before Elizabeth’s death, the couple had three sons, Theodore, John D. Junior, and Joseph (Little Joe?), along with two daughters, Amanda and Harriet.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

John D. Winters engaged in the boisterous stagecoaching business in Illinois starting in the 1830s. Eventually, the Frink & Walker combine drove him out of the state to California. The arrival of the mail stage in Illinois’ small towns was a notable event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

Winters probably settled first in southern or central Illinois, possibly around Peoria. In 1827, Winters moved north to what would eventually become Jo Daviess County with James and John Flack. Shortly thereafter, Winters and Capt. Clack Stone (whose first name is, understandably enough, often incorrectly spelled “Clark”), established a village they named Elizabeth after Winters’ wife (Elizabeth is located on modern U.S. Route 20 a few miles southeast of Galena).

Winters apparently got into the freight, mail, and stagecoach business almost as soon as he arrived in Illinois. From his new base in Elizabeth, he began running coaches from Galena south to Peoria and St. Louis.

Dr. John Taylor Temple initiated stage service from Chicago to Ottawa, and from there to Peoria, in January 1834, using his political connections to obtain the mail contract, a must for any successful stage operator. Winters bought Temple out in the spring of 1837 but then lost the Chicago mail contracts to John Frink and his partners later that year.

Winters subsequently abandoned Chicago for greener pastures elsewhere in the state, concentrating on the Peoria to Galena and other lines in western and northwestern Illinois. Sharp increases in passenger and mail business between Chicago and Galena and other points in Illinois in the early 1840s led to Winters and Frink locking horns one more time. Frink’s coaches sported a wheel brake, a sensible safety device, but Winters denounced it as a “Damn Yankee contrivance,” and said he didn’t want anything holding his horses back. Frink fired back that Winters used old broken down horses. Winters then made a tactical error in advertising that passengers in his coaches traveled “leisurely over the prairies.” Frink replied his stages were pulled by lively horses and that due to their speed, space “was almost annihilated.” In the end, Winters braced Frink in the American House hotel in Galena and the two fought it out.

But Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, prevailed. In 1848, Winters gave up, sold out, and moved his family west to California. It turned out to be the first of a couple very fortuitous turns of events. Shortly after arriving in California, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Winters and his sons, all skilled teamsters, made their first fortune hauling supplies to the gold fields.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

Then when gold was discovered in Nevada, the Winters clan started hauling supplies from Placerville, Calif. to the Carson Valley in Nevada. It was about that time that old J.D. decided to take a chance in the mining game and he bought an 18th share in a new mine called the Ophir. It was a fateful decision because the Ophir was one of the mines burrowing into what became known as the Comstock Lode, a silver deposit so huge that it was almost incomprehensible. Wrote Sam Clemmens (who eventually became known as the writer Mark Twain) to his brother from Esmeralda, Nev. in July 1862, “An eighteenth of the Ophir was a fortune to John D. Winters.”

J.D. ended his life as a prominent rancher and businessman. Young J.D. Junior was elected a member of Nevada’s first territorial legislature and even ran for governor. Theodore, born all those years ago in Illinois, went on to found the town of Theodore, Calif., and was a rich man in his own right.

Although forced out of the stage and freight business in Illinois, the Winters family headed west where they were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to make their fortune in transportation, land, and mining. Just like the Cartwrights (whose name, possibly not so coincidentally, means “wagonmaker”), except the Winters’ story started right here in northern Illinois.

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After 180 years, the roads from Chicago to Ottawa still drive growth

Just 180 years ago this week, transportation history was made when the first stagecoach drove west out of Chicago on its way to Ottawa, the sometimes head of navigation on the Illinois River.

From its earliest days, Chicago owed its wealth—in fact, its very existence—to transportation. The Lake Michigan water highway, plunging deep into the interior of North America, brought the earliest French explorers to the Chicago portage. Throughout the colonial and pioneer era, the lake acted as a north-south superhighway for traders, soldiers, and settlers.

But while Lake Michigan penetrated deeply into what would one day become the Midwest, there was no direct link from the lake to the vital Mississippi-Ohio river system. The sluggish Chicago River emptied into the lake amid marshes and sand dunes, but it did not, except during floods, connect with any of the south-flowing rivers in the area. Instead, the earliest travelers paddled their canoes up the Chicago River to the overland portage to the Des Plaines River. From there, the route flowed south to the confluence with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River forms and then down to the Mississippi.

While that route was passable—for most of the year—for canoes and small boats, it was totally unsuitable unusable for steamboats. Instead, the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River during periods of high water was Ottawa. During the rest of the year when the river was shallower, Peru was as far as the steamboats of the 1820s and 1830s could get.

Because of this gap in water transportation from the lake to the Illinois, the road from Chicago to Ottawa was a major economic engine driving development, both in Chicago and its hinterland throughout northern Illinois.

The branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail known as the High Prairie Trail was probably first used by the region’s Native American inhabitants. While the Indians’ permanent villages were located along the Fox River and other area streams, winter family hunting camps were scattered along the banks of the Illinois River. It’s likely the trail from the lakeshore at Chicago to Ottawa was forged by these groups as they made their fall trips to the Illinois and spring journeys back to the Fox, DuPage, and DesPlaines rivers.

In the late 1820s when white settlement began in earnest in northern Illinois, the overland route from Chicago on the lake to Ottawa became economically significant. Goods were sent by steamboat up the Illinois and offloaded at either Peru or Ottawa for overland shipment to Chicago. In return, the growing variety of goods, ranging from timber cut and milled in Wisconsin and Michigan forests to grain and livestock grown by farmers in Chicago’s outlying area was shipped back south to be transported down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago-Ottawa trails

The two branches of the road from Chicago to Ottawa were the High Prairie Trail that passed through Plainfield, Plattville, and Lisbon and the road’s western branch that linked Naperville, Oswego and Newark as the road headed southwest.

As it evolved, the trail from Chicago to Ottawa consisted of three main branches, the eastern, central, and western. Two of the three—the western and central branches—passed through Kendall County. The eastern branch followed the course of the DesPlaines-Illinois River, looping about 10 miles east of Kendall County’s borders.

The central branch, called the High Prairie Trail, was the most heavily traveled. The northern stretch of the High Prairie Trail was established in 1831 by the Cook County Board during the county’s first year of existence. Cook originally included all of today’s Cook and DuPage counties, plus most of Will. The county road paralleled and sometimes directly followed today’s Odgen Avenue (U.S. Route 34) from downtown Chicago to Bernard Lawton’s inn and tavern at the DesPlaines River ford (at today’s Riverside), and from there in an almost direct route southwest to Walker’s Grove (today’s Plainfield) at the DuPage River ford. From there, the road followed a series of moraine ridges across the prairie into LaSalle County (then including all of LaSalle, Kendall, and Grundy counties, plus all the land north of there to the Wisconsin border) where it ran southwesterly through what would one day be Plattville and Lisbon to the tiny Holderman’s Grove settlement and then on to Ottawa.

For the first two years of the official route’s existence, there was only the occasional traveler on the road to stop at Abraham Holderman’s tiny inn at the southern tip of Big Grove. But in 1833, things began to pick up. That year, Dr. John Taylor Temple was granted the U.S. Post Office’s contract to carry mail from Chicago on the High Prairie Trail via Plainfield and Holderman’s to Ottawa, where it would be sent by steamboat to St. Louis. Meanwhile, mail that had come north by riverboat would be carried northeast up to the port of Chicago.

Temple’s first coach clattered out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, with an ambitious young lawyer, John Dean Caton, at the reins.

Moving buildings from houses to taverns was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

Moving buildings,from houses to taverns, was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

News that Temple’s new stage line would start carrying mail and passengers spread quickly. Traveling the new road from Chicago southwest in 1833, Daniel Platt of New York (his family had established Plattsburg) arrived in what would one day become Kendall County and established an inn at Plattville, while Levi Hills and family, more New Yorkers, arrived and bought Holderman’s inn. A year later, Hills hitched up several yokes of oxen and using logs as rollers moved the log tavern out of its grove out onto the prairie to the site of what soon became the village of Lisbon, apparently to better serve stagecoach travelers.

The western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail used the same route as the High Prairie Trail until it crossed the Des Plaines at Lawton’s. From there, it headed to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement (modern Naperville) on the DuPage. From there, the road crossed the prairie to Oswego, where it turned south and followed the Fox River to Yorkville. From Yorkville, the road turned southwest down the Fox River to the hamlet of Pavilion and then to the Hollenbacks’ settlement at Newark before joining the High Prairie Trail just north of Ottawa.

Today, the western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail is still an economic engine for Kendall County. The U.S. Route 34 corridor—which follows almost the exact course of the historic old road—has spurred the growth of towns along its route due to its direct connection to Naperville and the rest of the collar counties.

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The visionary life of John Dean Caton

It was late in 1833, and Dr. John Taylor Temple was looking for somebody to drive his brand new stagecoach on its first trip down the new mail route from Chicago to Ottawa.

 Temple had a brand new Concord Coach shipped east west from Buffalo by Great Lakes steamer, and it was ready to go for its first run down the High Prairie Trail from Chicago on Lake Michigan to Ottawa on the Illinois River.

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

John Dean Caton, an ambitious young man who had only recently been admitted to the Illinois bar—and thus becoming the first lawyer in Chicago—volunteered to take the reins. Born to a Quaker family in Monroe County, N.Y. on March 19, 1812, Caton’s early life was difficult. At the age of 3 he lost his father, after which his mother then moved the family to her brother’s farm near Utica, N.Y. There he worked hard and apparently studied just as hard at school. When he was 16, money was somehow found to send him to the Utica Academy (academies were the era’s high schools), where he excelled, his teachers telling him a year later he was qualified to teach in the area’s one-room schools. Caton taught for a year and continued his studies (something that proved a life-long habit), this time concentrating on the law. The next year, he was accepted to read law at a Utica firm, and after two years decided he was ready to set out on his own, and looking towards the western frontier—Illinois.

In June 1833, Caton and his brother, William, arrived in Chicago, then a boisterous, muddy, disease-ridden hamlet growing by leaps and bounds along the banks of the Chicago River at the foot of Lake Michigan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Caton made the long trek south to Pekin, where Judge Stephen T. Logan examined him and licensed the young man to practice law in Illinois.

Caton wasted no time, renting a one-room office in Dr. Temple’s two-story frame building on Lake Street. He prosecuted Chicago’s first robbery case in July. On Dec. 4, 1833 he was elected Chicago village attorney.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

That same year, Temple, who apparently used his political connections to snag the all-important contract to deliver mail between Ottawa and Chicago, established John T. Temple & Company, the city’s first stagecoach company. To carry the company’s mail and passengers, ordered a new state-of-the-art stagecoach from the Abbott-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and by Jan. 1, 1834 Temple’s line was ready to roll.

Climbing up onto the driver’s seat, Caton, who learned to drive teams on his uncle’s farm, urged the horses on across the frozen Nine Mile Swamp and along the Barry Point Trail to Barney Laughton’s tavern at the DesPlaines River ford—and into history.

If his career had stalled at that point, he would still have been remembered by history. But Caton was only beginning a public life that would span decades of Illinois history. As Chicago boomed during the frenetic 1830s, Caton prospered. In 1835, he traveled back east to New Hartford, N.Y. where he married Laura A. Sherrill. The couple then headed back west to growing Chicago where they quickly had three children. In addition, Caton served a term as a Chicago’s alderman.

By 1838, Caton was exhausted, his heath had begun to suffer, and the devastating Panic of 1837 (we call them depressions these days) had seriously damaged his finances. Deciding on a change of scene and occupation, he and his wife purchased a few hundred acres of land in what would, in a few years, become Kendall County, adjacent to thousands of acres owned by her brother, Henry Sherrill, and by his brother and cousins. Caton farmed for a few years, and acquired more land, before reentering the law and deciding to join the state’s judiciary.

In 1842, Caton was appointed judge for the circuit that included Kendall County, and in that capacity presided over the county’s first murder trial in 1844 and at the first session of the circuit court after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845. Along with his work on the regular circuit, Caton also served on the Illinois Supreme Court starting in 1842. In 1848, he left the circuit and concentrated on his Supreme Court duties, including a number of terms as chief justice.

Then in 1849, he found something even more interesting than the law. Friends in Ottawa, where he had moved, asked him to help Henry O’ Riley of Rochester N.Y., who had contracted with those holding Samuel F.W. Morse‘s patents to extend telegraph lines from St. Louis into Illinois. So Caton helped establish the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, becoming one of its first directors.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton's Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton’s Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

Fascinated with the new technology but knowing little about it, Caton spent much of the next three years studying it and becoming a skilled telegrapher. And thanks to his legal acumen, the company weathered some rough financial patches. Applying his ingenuity to the new communications technology, he helped overcome a number of technical problems. For instance, he insisted the company use cedar poles that, while initially more expensive, were far more durable, sharply cutting maintenance costs.

His Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop in Ottawa, under the management of Robert Henning, became a technological leader in both telegraph instrument design and manufacture and in teaching telegraphy. In 1867, Caton sold all of his telegraphy interests to Western Union. His innovative instrument shop eventually became an ancestor of Western Electric, later Lucent Technologies.

Caton's 1881 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

Caton’s 1877 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

A wealthy man by the late 1860s, Caton pivoted once again, plunging into the study of natural history while traveling the world, publishing several authoritative papers and books. Between 1868 and 1877, Caton frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin on observations on sexual behavior and characteristics of elk, deer, bison, and the habits of wild and domestic turkeys. Caton sent Darwin copies of papers he wrote on North American wildlife and Darwin reciprocated with his own work and comments. When Darwin’s sons visited the United States in 1871, he sent a letter of introduction with them to Caton. Caton sent Darwin a copy of his book The Antelope and Deer of America (1877), which Darwin warmly received.

In his busy retirement, Caton published books and papers on Hawaii, Norway, and on Illinois history before his death in Chicago on July 30, 1895. He never really forgot his local roots, either, and today Caton Farm Road in Kendall County and Caton Street in Ottawa are reminders of the life of this fascinating, visionary attorney, farmer, judge, businessman, historian, author, and scientist.

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How Henry J. Moore left his mark on Oswego history…

We keep an eye on eBay down at the museum in case anything interesting pops up, and from time to time, something does. A case in point is a letter that Henry J. Moore sat down to write on May 14, 1846 to his cousin back in Monroe County, N.Y. He mailed it from Oswego where his family had settled, and thereby rescued himself from historical oblivion.

We could read a bit of Moore’s letter on-line, but it’s difficult using eBay’s “mouse over” magnification “feature,” sort of like trying to look at a giant billboard through the wrong end of a telescope. But from what we could tell, the letter contained some really interesting information about breaking the prairie sod with yokes of oxen and citizens volunteering and marching off to fight in the Mexican War. It was enough for us to allocate the bulk of our annual budget for purchasing artifacts and archival items to the auction, and, I am happy to say, we were successful. Not only that, but the seller gave us a $35 discount when he found out the letter was going into the collections of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego.

The front of Henry J. Moore's letter, sent from Oswego back to Monroe County, N.Y. in 1846. No stamps or envelopes in those days.

The front of Henry J. Moore’s letter, sent from Oswego back to Monroe County, N.Y. in 1846. No stamps or envelopes in those days.

The letter, when it arrived at the museum, was found to be in fragile condition. What collectors call a folded stampless cover, the letter had been written by young Henry G. Moore, folded into its own envelope, and then secured with a large drop of hot red wax and impressed with a seal. He took it to the Oswego Post Office and paid 10-cents to mail it back to New York. In those days, there were no stamps, so Postmaster W.O. Parke simply wrote “10” on the envelope and then canceled it by writing “Oswego, Ills.” and “June 18” in the lower left corner of the front.

The back of the Moore letter, showing how the carefully folded single sheet forms its own envelope, sealed with red wax.

The back of the Moore letter, showing how the carefully folded single sheet forms its own envelope, sealed with red wax.

After arriving in New York, Moore’s cousin, James M. Cusick, stopped down at his local post office and retrieved his letter—there was no such thing as home or rural mail delivery in those days—and somehow it was saved for posterity, ending up in a large collection of stampless covers that were put up on eBay for sale.

Over the years, the letter had been folded and unfolded many times, causing it to separate along many of the folds. So the first thing we did with it was to encapsulate it in Mylar—which is NOT to be confused with laminating. Laminating uses heat, glue, and un-archival plastic sheets to encase paper and it destroys the historical integrity of documents. Encapsulating involves securing documents in a Mylar sandwich sealed along the edges with archival quality double-faced tape. The corners are left un-taped and open to allow the documents to breath, (hopefully) preventing mold and mildew from forming. And since the document itself is not glued or otherwise fastened, encapsulating is simple to undo with a sharp scissors.

After starting to unfold the letter after it arrived at the museum, it was clear it had separated at the many folds over the years. So it was important that it be encapsulated in Mylar to protect it.

After starting to unfold the letter after it arrived at the museum, it was clear it had separated at the many folds over the years. So it was important that it be encapsulated in Mylar to protect it.

Once the letter was encapsulated, we scanned it and then transcribed it. We then could make some conclusions about both the writer and the times in which he was writing. For instance, young Henry’s family was farming outside Oswego, and he reports that they had, by the time he wrote back home to his cousin on May 14, 1846, that they had broken 145 acres for planting. Plowing was proceeding at about two acres per day using a breaking plow and six oxen, he said.

He also missed his cousin, James, and urged him to make a visit to what was then the western frontier. Further, Henry urged anyone coming west to “bring a girl for the girls is [s]carse this time [of] year.”

The other big news that spring was that war with Mexico had broken out and that President James K. Polk had issued a call for 50,000 troops. Moore told his cousin that “out of our county of Kendall there was 32 listed and have gon last Mondy, Lawyer Dogg [Dodge] for the Capt.”

Translating from Moore’s somewhat eccentric spelling and usage, he was saying that Abram R. Dodge, an Oswego lawyer, was leading a company of 32 Kendall County men off to war. The community had heard the word about the war via newspapers brought in via stagecoach, and a mass meeting was held at the schoolhouse, then located on Madison Street just south of the modern Church of the Good Shepherd in Oswego. Oswego was then the county seat of Kendall County, but a courthouse had yet to be completed. Speaking in favor of forming a local unit to fight the war, according to the account left by the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks in his 1877 history of Kendall County, was Dodge, and another prominent lawyer, Alonzo B. Smith.

Dodge apparently decided to lead the group himself, and they set off by wagons driven by local volunteers, taking the troops to Alton, where they were sworn into federal service.

Young Henry, however, decided not to go, although he assured Cusick that “I expect that our flags will wave triumfent over all mexico soon,” adding, “I might have had a comishon to went along.”

While the community gave the troops a good send-off Moore reported that the families of those marching off were greatly saddened: “it was trying times that morning; the tears of children the sobs of affectionate wife tryde there Patriotism.”

So with a successful bid on eBay, we found out that in 1846 it was common to be able to plow about two acres of virgin prairie a day using three yokes of oxen, that 32 Kendall County men marched off to fight in the Mexican War in 1846, and that those who came west greatly missed their friends and family members left behind. Unfortunately, we know very little about the balance of young Henry’s life. Age 26 when the 1850 U.S. Census was taken in Oswego, he drops off the historical landscape, leaving only a letter for us by which to remember him.

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Same old scam; brand new tech…

Matt Taibbi had another fascinating article in Rolling Stone this past month, this time concerning how the giant media conglomerate Thomson Reuters seems to have been helping some giant hedge funds and other powerful financial companies cheat by selling them economic survey data earlier than their regular customers.

According to a July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, Tomson Reuters and the University of Michigan jointly conduct the Survey of Consumers, the results of which are publicly released twice a month at 10 a.m. However, they’ve also been selling access to the survey results to subscribers that allows them to access the data five minutes early. Further, however, and this is where it gets dicey for Tomson Reuters, they’ve been further selling access to a select band of 16 heavy financial hitters that arrives two seconds earlier than it does to their other paying customers.

Now, five minutes advanced notice doesn’t sound like much, and two seconds sounds like even less. However, in this day and age of computerized stock and bond trading, getting any jump at all on the competition concerning consumer confidence could mean billions in profits.

As CNN put it:

“In the milliseconds before the survey is released to other paying clients at 9:55 a.m. ET, trading volumes can soar up to 20 times their normal levels. By 9:54:59 a.m. ET, long after computers have acted on the number, volumes have already returned to normal.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was not amused, taking the sensible, though seemingly far from universal, position that:

“The securities markets should be a level playing field for all investors and the early release of market-moving survey data undermines fair play in the markets,”

Schneiderman threatened to sue; Tomson Reuters backed off and said they’d start releasing the data to all their subscribers at the same time; but now it appears the story was even worse than originally thought.

It’s a very big deal. Time will tell, however, whether any actual legal action will take place, especially given the general immunity from investigation and prosecution the financial sector enjoys these days.

The interesting historical aspect of this story, to me at least, is that something very similar was taking place back in the early 1800s, leading the U.S. Post Office to institute Express Mail delivery in an effort to level the economic playing field. And please note, this was decades before that publicity stunt called the Pony Express was a gleam in William Russell’s eye.

The U.S. Post Office's Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

The U.S. Post Office’s Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s than the Pony Express ever did. And interestingly enough for those of us in Illinois, one of the branches of the Express Mail connected Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill. on the National Road.

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

Express Mail service had been sporadically and temporarily established many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders, for instance, carried messages during the colonial period. After the Revolution, most expresses were part of the nation’s military communications network.

But the need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service finally became apparent in the spring of 1825. New York cotton merchants, learning that prices on the London market had skyrocketed, bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the price news. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news, making a hefty profit by buying low from uninformed sellers and selling high on the international market.

Postmaster General John McLean, vowing such a thing would never happen again, prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” and also established an Express Mail to follow the Great Mail route from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was forced to fire his Postmaster General, William T. Barry, ostensibly for corruption, but also for mismanagement. During his four years as the first cabinet-level head of the post office department, Barry had driven the financially healthy agency into bankruptcy.

In May 1835, enter Amos Kendall—our county’s namesake—who instituted a wide range of reforms. Kendall’s reforms, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal surpluses. Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service.

Regular mail was carried along the Great Mail route by the express at three times the normal postage. Newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news as quickly as possible.

President Jackson signed the bill creating the Express Mail in July 1836, and service began that autumn. Within a few weeks, another express was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala.

Then in 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed upon Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis, following the old National Road through the Illinois state capital at Vandalia.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, and each day thereafter, express riders quickly pushed their horses from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis.

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

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

It never ceases to amaze me the way we keep seeing aspects of history repeating themselves. With the recent story in Rolling Stone, we see that the predilections on the part of dishonest financial manipulators to cheat remains unabated, even in this modern computer age when two seconds advanced notice are apparently as valuable as a few days used to be 188 years ago.

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Spreading the news…

I’ve said before that Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee” is my favorite short story. It’s a tall tale that revolves around how Twain—himself originally a newspaper man—saw weekly journalism being practiced down in the Volunteer State.

A major theme of the book revolves around what Twain offhandedly refers to as “exchanges.” It’s a term that’s pretty much ceased to be used in this day and age, but from the late 1700s through the early 20th Century, exchanges were how news was spread from community to community.

Very early in the nation’s life, newspapers were sent from town to town on the stagecoaches that carried the mail. But most of those papers were carried “outside the mail,” that is, a publisher would pay the stage crew in barter or with a minimal amount of cash to carry his paper on down the mail route in a sack or other container that was not the official portmanteau. Mail, by definition, was carried in the official portmanteau, a large, locked valise. Postmasters had the special key for the lock on the portmanteau, and were the only ones who could open it on its journey up and down a mail route.

The newspaper office of Fredrick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. looked pretty much like thousands of small newspaper offices all over the U.S. in the 19th Century. (Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library)

The newspaper office of Fredrick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. looked pretty much like thousands of small newspaper offices all over the U.S. in the 19th Century. (Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library)

If and when the paper got to its destination—since it was outside the mail, it’s delivery wasn’t guaranteed—the local publisher would copy pertinent articles into his own paper for publication the next week, and, in exchange, send a copy of his paper back to the first publisher. He’d also send exchange copies of his paper to other publishers.

By this method, news traveled remarkably fast from settled eastern areas west along the mail routes of the era.

But with the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress recognized the importance of spreading the news as quickly as possible by mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.

Even more important, exchanges were allowed to be mailed for free, so papers and the news in them spread quickly. Most weeklies in the 19th Century had a column often headed “From Our Exchanges” that reported non-local news. Non-local news was also spread this way, including national news, political news, and economic news.

The intent of the Federal Government was that the free circulation of news of all kinds was essential to the success of a democracy. In 1788, President George Washington wrote in a letter to Matthew Carey and published in the Columbian Magazine:

I entertain an high idea of the utility of periodical Publications: insomuch that I could heartily desire, copies of . . . Magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might spread through every city, town and village in America. I consider such easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other, to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free People.

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Dissemination of news was considered so essential to the new nation, in fact, that it was enshrined as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. In order to get freedom of the press and the free flow of information into law, legislation had to be passed. The Act of 1792 was the first time such a sweeping right was given for the free flow of information. In effect, it created the first version of today’s Internet.

Later, Congress mandated that county weeklies could be mailed within their counties of origin free of charge. That was a huge boost to newspapers. While printing costs far outpaced the costs of news gathering in that early era, postage costs were high. For instance, in 1843, James Sheldon Barber mailed letters to his parents from Oswego here in Illinois back to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. at a cost of 25-cents for a single sheet. This at a time when good prairie land was selling for $1.25 per acre.

So letting weeklies send exchanges and papers in-county to their subscribers free was wonderful way to keep people informed, encourage a vigorous local newspaper industry, and advance the causes of democracy. It also gave Mark Twain some pretty good fodder for short stories.

Things changed in 1970 when the United States Post Office Department was privatized and changed into the United States Postal Service. Like most privatization schemes, it hasn’t worked out very well, although the service gamely soldiers on despite the best intent of Congress to kill it off like the Passenger Pigeon.

One of the consequences of the 1970 act was steadily increasing postal rates for local newspapers. Far from being seen as essential to good government, periodicals were more and more viewed as impediments to mechanized mail delivery. Today, the hoops weekly newspaper publishers have to jump through, over, and around to maintain their Second Class mailing permits are absolutely mind-boggling. It’s almost enough to make a person wonder whether it might not be a good idea to start bartering with mail carriers again like the good old days of 1791.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation