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Trying to stay one step ahead of destruction in the Machine Age

When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Čapek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother, Josef, he had human-shaped machines in mind that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.

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65 years later, Tobot doesn’t look nearly as frightening as he did to my 7 year-old self.

Today, millions of robots are quietly and industriously going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of SF literature or the robots we grew up watching on TV and in the movies. I recall being scared to death of the Tobot character (“robot” spelled backwards) when I watched “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” as a little kid. Robbie the robot in “Forbidden Planet” was a good-natured mechanical man, as was Robot, the combination nanny and straight man on “Lost in Space.”

But instead of humanoid machines mingling in modern society, these days robotic carts deliver parts from storage to machine in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of trucks and autos these days; and deep space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years over the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth. Robots even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.

In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things—or make even bigger profits without all those pesky union contracts to deal with.

On the plus side, machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever could move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.

No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that rock-moving lever noted above. Or it could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.

The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations right up through the present was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.

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No wheels, no Ben-Hur chariot race. Bummer.

But far from being simply a troublemaker, the wheel has also, over the course of history, been the greatest labor saving device ever invented, and may well have led to the invention of civilization. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes, and other great capitals of the ancient world. And something as simple as a wheelbarrow lighten the workload on generation after generation of workers.

When put to work properly and with some innovation, wheels made manufacturing possible on large scales for the first time.

The water wheel was probably invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became not only possible but practical.

Gears and pulleys—also wheels—allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down and then round and round to saw trees into lumber.

At some time or other, an inventive person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. A trip hammer is lifted by a cam—basically a bulge—attached to a shaft turned by waterpower. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly rising and falling hammer? Let us count the ways.

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Water-powered trip hammers made work from blacksmithing to dye making much easier.

In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stocks could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.

Water powered hammers were also useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate the tiresome process of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron to flatten or weld or shape them, making workers more productive.

In addition, falling or flowing water could also power all manner of other complicated machine assemblages from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to those sawmill blades mentioned above.

Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first wave of settlement in the 1830s. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merritt Clark, Levi Gorton and the others found likely sites along the county’s creeks and rivers and built their dams and mills.

1900 (abt) Parker Mills

Levi Gorton built the gristmill on the riverbank just north of Oswego at left, and Nathaniel Rising added the sawmill in the right foreground, while George Parker added a furniture factory wing to the sawmill.

Gristmills were usually the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their com, barley, oats, and wheat into flour. But sawmills were almost as quickly built, and lumber for homes for the county’s growing population was soon available.

All manner of water-powered factories followed, and even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was soon sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale later in the warm months of the year.

The steam engine—which also relies on wheels to operate—gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low or high water levels, and they don’t freeze up in the winter.

Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engines installed aboard boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.

Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network is bringing people together as nothing else ever has. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.

Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote new dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom of civilization before it destroys both.

 

 

 

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Tiptoeing perilously close to self-praise…

Self-praise, my mother used to say, stinks. Earthy, but descriptive, and it’s something that’s stuck with me all my life. So it’s probably not an accident that I view the current occupant of the White House with more than a little disdain.

And then, as if my mother’s stern injunction wasn’t enough, I married someone who has a lot of Quaker in her background, and who is so opposed to blowing her own horn that she’s still never even read two local history booklets the two of us wrote back in 1975.

All that said, I now intend to blow my own horn a little, although I’m not ready to go so far as to call it self-praise because, you know, that’s bad.

Here it goes: I earned a first place in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s 2018 Newspaper Contest for the best local column in the non-daily paper classification. The awards were announced Oct. 18 at NINA’s annual awards dinner at Northern Illinois University.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

One of the columns that proved to be NINA award-winners concerned discovering the exact date of this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. An original copy of the photo is in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield and Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

My “Reflections” column has been appearing weekly in Oswego’s weekly paper, the Ledger-Sentinel (corporate changed the name back to the Oswego Ledger a while ago, but I like the old name), since July 1980 when Jeff and Kathy Farren talked me into becoming the editor of the newly combined Oswego Ledger and Fox Valley Sentinel. Although I retired as the editor (and also a beat reporter—weekly newspaper folks do everything from photography to writing obits) of the Ledger-Sentinel back in 2008—I agreed to continue doing my weekly local history column, because it’s fun and I always enjoy a chance to talk history, even if I’m only talking to myself. It now also appears in several other Shaw Media newspapers on an irregular basis as well as the four papers they own here in Kendall County.

For the annual NINA contest, several columns have to be submitted written during the contest year, and this year, my editor, John Etheredge, sent in four of them including the Feb. 1 one on George Washington’s slave wedding gift and a similar one affecting a local family; the Jan. 29 piece on the Great Millbrook Bank Robbery; my May 25 update on the Nathan Hughes photo (he was a black Civil War veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment); and my Sept. 14 piece on how standardized testing in in public schools is virtually eliminating the study and appreciation of local history.

The contest is judged (mostly) by the profs in the journalism department at Northern Illinois University, which gives it a nice academic aura. The person who judged the non-daily column entries had this to say about “Reflections”: “Writing about history is one thing, and writing about now is another, but tying history to the present in a compelling way is a tall order, and Roger Matile does this very well.”

Which made me feel pretty good, because that’s what I try to do just about every week. It’s good to know that a disinterested third party thinks what I think I’m doing seems to be working. And I also get a spiffy framed certificate to hang on my brag wall here at History Central.

Hope you didn’t get too upset, mom…

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Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

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Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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Substituting electronic for personal contact is nothing new…

Got back from our Undaunted Courage trip out west all in one piece, despite a battle with bronchitis. The good folks at the walk-in clinic in Fergus Falls, Minnesota fixed me up with a supply of tetracycline and so we were good to go for the trip back home.

We planned to make a brief stop at our fishing cabin up in northern Wisconsin on the way back, and since the route there from Fergus Falls took us right past the Norske Nook in Hayward, we couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping for supper and pie.

When we got home, I had plenty of time to go back over the things I missed while we were on the road. While I was doing that, an article in the September issue of The Atlantic caught my eye. Written a couple months ago by Jean M. Twenge, it asked the question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

The kicker to the title of Twenge’s piece, “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis,” lays out her basic thesis, which is that teens are in danger of becoming mentally and physically isolated because of the impact of smartphones on their lives.

Twenge starts her piece by recounting a conversation with the teenage child of a friend. The kid told Twenge that she spent most of her summer hanging out along, in her room, in constant communication with friends via social media. “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people,” the teen told her.

Which leads to several hundred words of increasing concern that riff off a theme laid out in a sentence in the piece: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

1911 Oswego Phone switchboard

In 1911, the Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in Oswego handled all the village’s calls with just two operators.

It’s entirely possible—even probable—that’s Twenge’s concerns are valid. But it’s likely panic isn’t necessarily something we need to do. In fact, it might also help put things in a little perspective to know that telecommunications revolutions have been gobsmacking technologically punch-drunk folks here in the U.S. for a long, long time.

In the early 1850s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad extended its tracks across the Fox River at Aurora and then west across northern Kendall County on the line’s way to Burlington, Iowa. It didn’t take long for telegraph lines to follow the tracks west, thus tying the county in with the rest of the country and the world. But the line ran a couple miles west of both Oswego and Yorkville, so it still took messages a while to get to town from stations along the line. Not until 1870, with the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch was built connecting towns along the Fox River did the bulk of Kendall residents find themselves living in towns with direct telegraph service to the rest of the world.

In the spring of 1870, the Great Western Telegraph Company strung their lines south and west of Aurora past Oswego and Yorkville and then on to Plano. On May 19, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, reported that “Oswego is to be connected with the rest of the world by telegraph. A gentleman representing the Great Western Telegraph Company was here the other day disposing of the stock to our citizens and making preliminary arrangements for an office.”

Then in December 1870, the CB&Q built their own lines, following the Fox River Branch’s route all the way south to Streator. By the end of January, Rank could report: “The telegraph wire is up and we are in connection with the world at large.”

It was an immediate convenience for just about everyone from law enforcement, which used it to quickly track down horse thieves, to just regular folks. In December 1878, Tom Miller received word from England that he needed to go back to his native land to deal with settling an estate. He accordingly set off from Oswego for New York and was about to leave on a ship across the Atlantic when the British Counsel in New York telegraphed him at Oswego that due to fast-evolving circumstances, he should delay his trip. But Miller wasn’t in Oswego; he was in New York. So the message was immediately sent back east along the line, reaching him in time for him to get off the ship before it sailed for England.

It took not many more years for telephones to pop up here and there in Kendall County. Originally, they were two-party, personal affairs used to connect a business owner’s home with his store. By the late 1800s, telephone wires were beginning to stretch across the region, tying whole communities into a telecommunications network that was rapidly spanning the nation.

In December 1897, just as Oswego got connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”

Cutter insulator

Oswegoan Scott Cutter’s tree-mounted insulator helped telephone companies extend service to rural areas without having to install utility poles.

By June 1900, Rank was predicting telephones would not only affect townspeople, but would also have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

And indeed, on June 16, 1901, the Record’s correspondent for the Specie Grove neighborhood along Minkler Road south of Oswego noted with some amazement: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

County residents weren’t only taking advantage of the telephone’s communications advantages; some were turning their inventive genius towards finding ways to make a buck off the technology itself. Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, for instance, invented an insulator for telephone wires that didn’t require telephone poles. As wires were strung through rural areas, it was a lot more cost effective if they could be hung from trees instead of installing utility poles—especially in that day when holes for them had to be hand-dug.

1903 abt N on Main from Wash wires

By the time his photo was taken about 1903 in downtown Oswego, utility wires, from overhead electric lines for the interurban trolley to telephone and electric service lines were starting to blot out the sky.

Gradually, even most rural areas were wired for service. In 1900, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County near Sandwich.

The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotting their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century.

Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries, which record a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town and for pleasure.

But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed in their farm house, the swirl of face-to-face visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells write about talking on the phone with friends and relatives.

So like all new inventions, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen consequences for area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Oswego’s Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards figuring out how to make a buck off improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until after they’d occurred. Although you could make a good case for the impact of television on society, I believe it would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.

Pretty sure we can already answer the question of that Atlantic article and figure that no, smartphones won’t destroy a generation. After all, we’ve survived the positive predictions of television, video games, and Pokemon Go destroying generations past. But given the way these things seem to creep up on us, I can hardly wait to find out how the next big thing in communications will disrupt my life.

 

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Don’t worry Dave; I still haven’t run out of local history to write about…

Even as a kid I was interested in history. Not sure why; maybe because family was such an important part of my life growing up—and my family on my maternal grandmother’s side had been here since before the French and Indian War.

Then during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, I discovered I could write things that people enjoyed reading. As part of the publications committee of the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission, as I wrote and co-wrote and helped edit monographs and a new county history, I became fascinated with local history, something I found that few knew much about. But the topic increasingly interested me, particularly how national and international history affected folks living here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. So I started looking into what was happening around these parts during the fur trade era, the nation’s various wars, the era of settlement, and the area’s growth and maturity from a frontier farming community to burgeoning suburbia.

Then, thanks to a cascade of health problems, in the late summer of 1977 I found myself out of work and looking for a part-time job. At the same time, Dave Dreier was looking for a couple columnists to punch up the Fox Valley Sentinel, one of Oswego’s two weekly newspapers.

Dave had started the Sentinel in 1973 as competition for the Oswego Ledger, which had been published since 1949, and was the new paper’s editor and publisher. He and I went to elementary school together before his family moved to North Aurora during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. But we still knew each other, so when I pitched the idea for a column on local, county, and state history, he said he’d take a chance and see what I’d produce. He asked me to write three columns of about 900 words each and he’d let me know his verdict after he read them. I later discovered that three-column thing was a good way to gauge how serious someone is about becoming a columnist. Just about everybody has one good column idea. Some people have two. Very few have three—a lesson I took to heart a few years later when budding columnists would pitch their ideas to me.

I dropped the columns off and Dave read them and said he liked what he saw. His one serious question was whether I thought I’d have enough material to keep the column going for a full year. I said I was pretty sure I would.

And, in fact, I’ve now been writing about local history in all its odd, wonderful, and sometimes startling twists and turns each week for four decades. Oh, I’ve missed a few weeks here and there for occasional hospitalizations for ulcers, installation of a new hip and a new heart valve, and whatnot, plus a few other pitfalls of adult life, but in general, I’ve churned out my average of 1,000 words, week in and week out, since Dave printed that first Fox Valley Sentinel column on Sept. 1, 1977—just 40 years ago today.

So at one paper or another, I’ve been covering the news, both contemporary and historical, for longer than I ever would have thought possible.

Forty years not only seems like a long time; it IS a long time. In January of 1977, Jimmy Carter had taken the oath as President, and things, unfortunately, pretty much went downhill from there. Carter’s Presidency wound up with Iranian religious fanatics seizing 52 American hostages. His administration’s handling of that crisis even had an impact on the Fox Valley Sentinel.

Sentinel flag

The flag of the late, and still lamented Fox Valley Sentinel, which ran upside down during the Iran hostage crisis, much to readers’ confusion.

The banner with the newspaper’s name at the top of the front page, in journalismese, is called, the flag. Dreier, in a patriotic gesture, decided that we would fly the Fox Valley Sentinel’s “flag” upside down (the international signal for distress) until the hostages were released, something we all agreed would be a wonderful expression of American solidarity. Little did we know the crisis would drag on for 444 days. Week after week, we printed the Sentinel’s flag inverted, and week after week we fielded calls from puzzled readers wondering whether we noticed part of the front page was printed upside down, to the point that we quickly started adding a note at the top of page 2 informing readers that, yes, we know the flag is upside down, and explaining the reason for it. After the Farrens bought the paper, Oswego’s era of upside-down journalism ended. And now you know, if you happen to look at microfilm copies of the Sentinel from those years, the upside-down flag is not exactly a mistake. Miscalculation, yes; mistake, no.

Returning to the kind and decent Jimmy Carter for a minute, he has definitely turned into our nation’s finest ex-President.

Dreier had perennial problems trying to keep reporters on staff—he was a first-rate journalist, photographer, and page designer, but not so good at actually running a business—and so one day when I stopped down at the Sentinel office to drop off my latest column (no email in those days), he asked if I’d be willing to cover some public meetings and write news stories about them. I told him I’d never taken a journalism course in my life and had no idea how to write news stories.

No problem, he said, plucking an envelope out of the wastebasket by his desk. “This,” he said drawing an upside-down pyramid on the back of the envelope, “Is an inverted pyramid. It’s how you write news stories, with the most important things at the top, and moving down to the least important things at the end. That’s so the editor can cut the copy if necessary and the most important things will still make it into the newspaper.”

But how do you write news, as opposed to the columns I was doing? Dave said the two styles were pretty much the same; include the things you think readers need to know, make sure of your facts, and do your best to explain them in plain English. He concluded by remarking the two basic things everyone wants to know about any local governmental issue are how much will it cost, and who’s going to pay, a bit of wisdom I carried with me the rest of my newswriting days.

Ledger flag2000

The Ledger-Sentinel flag flew over the “Reflections” column from 1980 until the name of the paper reverted back to its pre-merger Oswego Ledger last year.

With my first and last journalism lesson under my belt, I ventured forth with some trepidation to cover Kane County government (where I learned how knowledge of parliamentary procedure can be used as a political weapon) and the West Aurora School Board. Later I added the Montgomery Village Board, the Oswego School District, the quasi-governmental Boulder Hill Civic Association, and the Oswego Village Board. I was destined to cover Oswego’s school board for more than 25 years all together, something that gives me a somewhat different perspective on the perennial questions that arise about public education than most folks.

In the summer of 1980, finally deciding there wasn’t enough advertising revenue in Oswego to support both his Sentinel and Jeff and Kathy Farren’s Oswego Ledger (subscriptions just about cover the cost of printing a newspaper, but nothing else, including personnel, office rental, utilities, or equipment), Dave decided to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The columnist-editor-reporter on a Wednesday morning in 1989 helping publish the Ledger-Sentinel using the latest Mac and TRS tech.

Jeff, who started working at the Kendall County Record when he was a teenager (back when type was set on a giant Linotype hot-lead machine), and Kathy were both Northern Illinois University journalism grads and were then publishing the Record in Yorkville, the Ledger in Oswego, and the Plano Record. They asked if I’d stay on as the new Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor. I reminded them that I had no editing experience, but I agreed to give it a try, starting out as the paper’s reporter, editor, and columnist.

It’s been quite a ride, this past 40 years has been. While chronicling the area’s history, I’ve seen Kendall County’s population balloon from 1980’s 37,000 to today’s estimated 130,000. In fact, the population of my hometown, Oswego, is larger today than the entire county’s population in 1970. The county was still overwhelmingly rural in 1977. Today, the number of farmers and farms continues to shrink as farms get bigger and bigger even as residential and commercial subdivisions gobble up additional hundreds of acres of once-productive farmland every year.

Fortunately, Dave Dreier’s fear that I might run out of history to write about didn’t come to pass. But times did change. Dave’s heart failed and he died in 2011, and my friends Jeff and Kathy Farren sold the Kendall County Record, Inc. to Shaw Media in 2016. Even the Ledger-Sentinel itself has changed again, its name reverting to the Oswego Ledger that was on the flag when Ford Lippold started publishing it on a Mimeograph machine in his basement back in 1949.

Not sure how much longer I’ll keep writing about local history, but it’s so much fun and so interesting that I don’t plan to quit any time soon. There’s always something new to learn, new people to learn about, and new clarity to bring to how our local communities came to be what they are today. So unless life intervenes (which, I’ve learned over the years, it has an annoying habit of doing) I’ll continue writing “Reflections” for the Ledger and the other Shaw papers in the Kendall County Now group, as well as in this space for History on the Fox, occasionally marveling that blogging didn’t even exist when I started writing and doing local history in 1977. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

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Observing Women’s History Month with the stories of three strong women

In the 19th Century, women were still legally considered the property of, first, their fathers and later their husbands. Denied the right to vote, they were likewise often denied the right to manage their own affairs.

Not that some pretty strong characters didn’t manage to succeed on their own, of course. During the pioneer era here in Kendall County a number of women patented land when it was first offered for sale by the government. Granted, some of those women were acting on behalf of their husbands, but some were trying to make their way on their own. Eliza Moore, for instance, entered 80 acres of land in 1839 in what eventually became Big Grove Township. By 1850, the U.S. Census reported her farmland and private property was worth $1,500, more than most of her neighbors.

But it took women of unusually strong drive and personality to fight their way out of the boxes in which society insisted they belonged. A close reading of history, though, suggests there were a number of strong female personalities, women who proved they could do the same jobs men traditionally held if they could only get the chance to do so.

Three of those strong female personalities were born here in Kendall County. Sadly, two of them were forced to carry on some of their most important activities in secret while the other apparently denied herself the lifetime fulfillment most women today take for granted: Emily Murdock was born into a poor but influential Oswego family in 1853; Mary Rippon was born on a farm near Lisbon Center in Lisbon Township in 1850; and Sarah Raymond was born in 1842, also in almost entirely rural Lisbon Township.

Of the three, two became respected educators, while the third became a mystery novelist, all during an era that if not actually frowning on, didn’t exactly encourage their career choices.

Van Deventer, Emily M

Emily Murdock Van Deventer became a mystery novelist, publishing at least 21 books under the pen name Lawrence L. Lynch. (Little White School Museum collection)

Emily Murdock’s father, Charles, was a justice of the peace and prominent Republican official in Oswego. Her brother, Alfred X. Murdock, was a lively young man who marched off to fight in the Civil War with his comrades in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Unfortunately, Alfred was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta.

For her part, Emily followed tradition, marrying Lawrence L. Lynch, a traveling salesman, when she came of age. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on April 19, 1877: “Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, a recently married couple and late of Cheyenne, Wyo., are now stopping at C.L. Murdock’s, the bride’s parents, she being the veritable Miss Emma Murdock.”

At least at first, her friends in Oswego had little idea that Emily  led a secret life as a successful mystery novelist. In a field then almost solely the purview of men, she apparently realized her chances for success were slim under her own name. Instead, Emily chose a man’s pen name. And for that name she picked “Lawrence L. Lynch,” the name of her first husband. In order to be successful at her chosen field, then, Emily had to pretend—in print at least—to be a man.

Local news accounts reported that Emily traveled throughout the U.S. with Lawrence Lynch until he disappeared from the scene in 1886. Exactly what happened to Lawrence is a local mystery; he simply drops out of news items. The earliest novel she wrote that I’ve been able to track down was Shadowed By Three, published in Chicago in 1882. Interestingly enough, the book was published while she was still married to Lynch. According to a note in the Feb. 28, 1884 Kendall County Record, two years after her first book was published: “The Murdock family—which now consists of three members—has been having a pretty hard time of it, the daughter, Mrs. Lynch, is just recovering from a spell of sickness; Mrs. Murdock is yet disabled from a fall on the ice several weeks ago; Mr. M. was down during the biggest part of last week but now is up and out again, and while thus at home, Mr. Lynch, an absent member of the family, was said to be snowbound out in Dakota.”

The last newspaper mention of Lawrence was in the Nov. 11, 1885 Record: “L.L. Lynch has come home from a long absence in Michigan, during which he has experienced a railroad accident, but got over the effects of it some time ago.” In March 1886, Emily is still going by the Lynch name, but in July 1887, when she remarries Dr. Abraham Van Deventer, a prominent local physician, she’s again using her maiden name, Emily Medora Murdock.

By 1905, her secret vocation as an author of mystery thrillers was well-known throughout her home town. In November of that year, a reporter for the Kendall County Record noted she had published 20 novels, with her 21st just sent off to the publisher. Her books were translated into French and German, and she also sold serials to popular magazines.

Emily died May 3, 1914 in Oswego. She is buried beside Dr. Van Deventer in Montgomery’s Riverside Cemetery.

1914 Raymond, Sarah E

Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam became the first female superintendent of a major public school system in the nation. (Little White School Museum collection)

Sarah Raymond, born in Lisbon Township in 1842, was educated in her local one-room school. She was unusual in that her parents decided to send her on to the Lisbon Academy—one of the county’s private high schools. After graduation, she taught in the county’s rural schools before enrolling at Illinois State Normal University—today’s Illinois State University at Normal. She graduated in 1866 and was hired to teach in the Bloomington public schools. Apparently an educator of considerable talent, Sarah gradually worked her way up to the post of principal of Sheridan School, and then moved on to become first assistant principal and then principal at Bloomington High School.

On Aug. 4, 1874, Raymond was appointed superintendent of the Bloomington School District, the first woman in the nation to hold such a position. She continued in that capacity until she decided to retire from education in 1892. In 1896, she married Capt. F.J. Fitzwilliam of Bloomington, although her joy was short-lived—the captain died in 1899. During her time with Bloomington’s schools and later during a few years spent in Boston, she rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Julia Ward Howe. Sara Raymond Fitzwilliam moved back to Illinois, and in 1907 she was named executrix of the will of James Trotter, and oversaw the design of a memorial fountain by famed Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft in Trotter’s memory on the grounds of Bloomington’s Withers Public Library. Dedicated in 1911, the landmark Trotter Memorial Fountain is still a Bloomington landmark in Withers Par. In 1914 she was one of the co-authors of the history of Kendall County published that year. She died Jan. 31, 1918 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Yorkville. The Bloomington School District’s Sarah E. Raymond School of Early Education is named in her honor.

Although she lived an exceedingly successful life for a woman born in a rural farming community, a person can’t help but wonder, though, whether she wouldn’t have been a happier woman had the conventions of the time allowed her to marry and have children while she continued to be an educational leader.

Rippon, Mary full

Mary Rippon was appointed as the first female professor at what is now the University of Colorado, Boulder. The school’s Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre is named in her honor. (Little White School Museum collection)

Mary Rippon did marry and have a child, although no one but a few close friends ever knew it. Her life took a tragic turn early on when her father died on their farm near Lisbon Center when Mary was just 10 months old. Fortunately, her extended family valued learning and she was well-educated, even being sent to Normal, Illinois for her high school education. There, one of her instructors was Joseph Sewall; the two would continue a professional relationship for decades.

After graduating from high school in 1867, Mary studied in universities in Germany, Switzerland, and France. In 1878, after having taught high school for a year and a half, she joined the faculty of the brand new University of Colorado. Her old teacher, Joseph Sewall, was the university’s first president and she became the school’s first female professor. Teaching French and German, Rippon was offered a full professorship in 1881 and was appointed to the prestigious position of German Language and Literature Department chair 10 years later.

But Mary Ripon carried a shattering secret with her: In 1887 she met young Will Housel, a student in her German class. Unknown to virtually anyone, she and Housel were secretly married in 1888, and she bore him one child, a girl, Miriam. Had anyone known she had married much less bore a child, her career as a college professor would have been destroyed. To keep her marital status a secret, she traveled to Europe ostensibly on sabbatical where she gave birth of Miriam. She then returned to the U.S. where she continued her career—alone. For the rest of her life, however, Mary helped financially support Miriam.

Miriam first lived in a series of orphanages, with Mary paying her expenses, before the girl finally went to live with her father, Will, who by that time had divorced Mary and re-married. Mary lived with her secret the rest of her life, revealing it only to a few of her closest friends. She died Sept. 9, 1935 and is buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. The Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was named in her honor (for the whole fascinating tale see Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon by Silvia Pettem, The Book Lodge, Longmont, CO, 1999).

Three very strong-willed women, all with Kendall County roots. And three stories of women working to make their way as best they could in what was very much a man’s world, stories that are well worth revisiting during this year’s Women’s History Month.

(Note: A shorter version of this post was published in the March 2, 2017 Oswego Ledger.)

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