Tag Archives: nostalgia

How about a nice bowl of cereal?

I miss cereal.

Oh, I’m not totally cereal-bereft. I can—and do—still eat oatmeal, both because it’s good for my increasingly old body with its malfunctioning parts, and because it’s good.

No, the cereal I’m talking about is the boxed kind, the Honey Smacks and the Golden Crisp, and the Frosted Flakes.

Because part of the aforementioned malfunctioning of various parts is that for some reason this old body decided milk will now throw the plumbing system into serious, China Syndrome meltdown. So, goodbye bowl of cereal before bed. So long bowl of cereal for breakfast. Bye-bye bowl of cereal for mid-afternoon snack.

And it’s hard, because I enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the stuff.

shredded-wheat-box

I was lured to shredded wheat thanks to Straight Arrow’s tips on wilderness survival.

One of my earliest cereal memories is eating Nabisco shredded wheat, and looking forward to uncovering the pieces of cardboard that divided the three layers of shredded wheat biscuits in those rectangular boxes. That’s because there was neat stuff to read on those dividers.

Starting in 1949, the National Biscuit Company began printing “Straight Arrow’s secrets of Indian lore and know-how” on the dividers, which imparted all sorts of useful information, some of which still sticks in my mind to this day. The idea was that the innovative and inventive Indian, Straight Arrow, would explain how to survive in the wilderness as a way to get kids interested in eating shredded wheat. Because, let’s fact it. Shredded wheat is not a very interesting cereal, although it’s pretty healthy.

straight-arrow

Straight Arrow could survive in the wilderness with practically no modern help at all. For a 6 year-old, it was an eye-opening introduction to living off the land.

So Nabisco not only sponsored the “Straight Arrow” radio program, starting in 1949, but they also contracted with Fred L. Meagher to created the illustrated cards. I don’t know about other little kids, but they certainly hooked me.

For instance, birch bark canoes were not white like the outside of the bark but were brown like the inner layer of the bark when it was peeled off birch trees. Why? Because when birch bark dries, it naturally curls with the white outer bark inside the curl. The brilliant Ojibwa marine architects who invented birch bark canoes took advantage of the natural curl of the sheets of bark they peeled off paper birch trees to fit the bark onto the canoes’ cedar frames.

Another card insisted that when finding himself in the wilderness, a person could survive if all he had was an ax, because with a good ax and the necessary survival skills you can manufacture about anything, from one of those birch bark canoes noted above to the paddles for the canoe to a cozy bark lodge for shelter from the storm.

But shredded wheat was far from the only cereal that got my gastronomical juices flowing, although as a rule, gastronomy took a backseat to cereals sponsored by my favorite TV shows.

jets-cereal

Sugar Jets were hawked by one of my TV heroes, Jet Jackson, but each one of the things was like a little bomb dropped in my digestive tract.

Captain Midnight, for instance, was one of my favorites. It was sponsored by Ovaltine, which for some reason my mother absolutely refused to buy. But then in 1958, Captain Midnight’s name suddenly changed to Jet Jackson, and the Ovaltine sponsorship disappeared in favor of Sugar Jets Cereal. So I absolutely had to have a box of Jets in order to get the box top, but, it turned out, Jets did not agree with my digestive system at all.

So it was back to Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops (“Sugar Pops are tops!), Post Sugar Crisp and their Kellogg’s cousin, Sugar Smacks, and Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (“They’re grrrrreat!”). Sugar Corn Pops were a big favorite because they were the main sponsor of “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” one my favorite TV westerns. Favorite because Wild Bill wore his twin six-shooters butt first, which was his gimmick. The Lone Ranger had his mask, silver bullets, and black two-gun rig; Hopalong Cassidy dressed in all black that showed off nicely against his white horse, Topper; and Red Ryder had his lever-action carbine, of which I got the Daisy BB gun version when I was 9 years-old. But Wild Bill and his sidekick, Jingle Jones (who was from East Sedalia) was arguably my favorite, and thus the reason I ate so many boxes of Sugar Corn Pops.

sugar-crisp-roy-dale

First Captain Video and then Roy and Dale beckoned me with the sirens’ call to Sugar Crisp cereal.

Post Sugar Crisp was a sponsor yet another favorite cowboy TV show, “The Roy Rogers Show,” which was a sort of surrealistic time-warped show. Almost everyone rode horses, including Roy (Trigger) and Dale Evans (Buttermilk), except Roy’s sidekick Pat Brady, who drove a 1946 Jeep that had been accessorized with armor plating and which he named Nellybelle.

Cowboys weren’t the only kids’ TV personalities hawking cereal, either. I was introduced to science fiction, a lifelong love, by watching “Captain Video and his Video Rangers,” which also got me sort of hooked on Post Sugar Crisp, thanks to Post’s sponsorship of the show even before Roy and Dale and Pat showed up on TV. It was my first introduction to a robot, the show’s TOBOR character (“robot” spelled backwards) and it frankly scared the beejebus out of me.

But all that was then, and this is now. Sugar Crisp, Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes, and the rest of those carbohydrate-packed cereals are actually still around, although in deference to today’s healthy eating aspirations, Sugar Crisps are now Honey Crisps, Sugar Corn Pops are just Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes are merely Frosted Flakes.

I sometimes visit the cereal isle at the grocery store, when I can ditch my wife, who hates shopping with the heat of a thousand suns, so that for at least a few minutes I can relive the old days when digestion and metabolism were kinder processes in my much younger body. And at least I can sort of make do with my daily morning bowl of oatmeal, on which I’ve found my sugarless creamer makes a passable substitute for the milk I so enjoyed on all those cereals of decades past.

But I still miss cereal.

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Filed under entertainment, History, Nostalgia, People in History

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

Friends and acquaintances dying is getting to be all too common these days, with me having spent 70 summers on this here Earth.

Many of my friends are passionate people, and all are interesting. But only a few have made the kind of lasting impression on his community and region due to his passion that Bob Rung did.

fishing-the-fox

Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Fox River of Illinois draws thousands of anglers to the Fox Valley and also provides an excellent recreation source for area residents. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois-Wisconsin Fishing Blog)

His first and greatest passion was fishing, something to which he had devoted (as near as I could tell) his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, too. His family moved to the sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision between Montgomery and Oswego when he and his siblings were children, and there he grew up within walking distance of the Fox River.

He honed his skills and learned on his own how to manufacture the lures and equipment best-suited to tracking down the wily smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and other gamefish that were so rare when we were kids.

We went through high school together although he, being a Boulder Hill kid, wasn’t someone I hung around with. But he walked into the gym with the rest of us on graduation night in May 1964 after which so many of us went our own ways.

And for Bob, like so many of my male classmates, that meant being shipped off to the jungles and rivers and mountains of Vietnam, where he put his training as a U.S. Army medic to work, getting wounded himself along the way. When he came home he decided to put his love of animals in general and fish in particular to use and in the fall of 1971 he and a partner bought the Oswego Fish & Hobby Shop at 25 Jefferson Street, across the street from the Oswego Public Library in the Wilhelm Building.

But his first love was still the Fox River and fishing and he eventually decided to see if he could make a career out of it, which he managed to do by becoming a college-educated fisheries biologist working for the Illinois Department of Conservation.

And that’s where Bob and I met again. He knew that I had a pretty strong interest in the Fox River, too, especially in our local environmental hero who called himself “The Fox.” So when I needed some technical background for stories I was doing on the river or its tributaries, Bob was my go-to source.

Like me, he really hated the dams that dot the river from Dayton just above Ottawa near the river’s mouth to the series of dams that create the Chain O’Lakes up north. I did a number of articles about the Yorkville dam and how good it would be for the health of the river to get rid of it, and Bob helped by supplying me with good sources for research on the harm dams do to the streams they block.

Bob was also a major source of expert information and oversight after the Flood of 1996 badly damaged the dams along Waubonsie Creek, and the Oswegoland Park District decided to remove all the ones it had access to. The dams had been built over a span of more than a century, one to provide deep enough water for an ice harvesting operation, one to back up water to fill the water hazards at Fox Bend Golf Course, and the others for varying reasons. The problem was, the dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and that had a negative impact on the diversity of life in the Fox River. So Bob strongly advocated for their removal, something we were able to help push along down at the newspaper. Today, fish can easily swim upstream to spawn, something that has had an extremely positive impact on the Fox River.

water-willow-planting

Friends of the Fox River organize an American Water Willow planting project in the summer of 2015. Bob Rung championed planting water willows up and down the Fox River’s banks to stabilize them and to provide enhanced habitat for fish. (Friends of the Fox River photo)

In addition, Bob was fascinated with improving the entire ecology of the river basin to enhance the environment for fish. To that end, he got both me and Jim Phillips—that aforementioned furry crusader doing business as “The Fox”—interested in his campaign to plant American Water Willows up and down the river’s banks. A low-growing tough-stemmed plant, it grows in colonies that stabilize stream banks, which is a good thing in and of itself. But in addition, the plants’ leaves, stems, and flowers also provide browse for deer, and its rhizomes provide tasty meals for beavers and muskrats. In addition, the plants’ water-covered roots and rhizomes provide cover newly hatched gamefish minnows and a fine habitat for invertebrates that fish and other creatures feed on.

bob-rung-gar

Bob Rung tosses a long-nosed gar back in the water in this 2012 photo from the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Over the years, he got organizations ranging from the Illinois Smallmouth Bass Alliance to the Friends of the Fox River to plant thousands of water willows along the rivershed’s stream banks. I once kidded him that he’d become the Johnny Appleseed of water willow propagation, and after a moment of silence he said he wouldn’t mind being called that.

Bob’s passion was the Fox River and he was one of those lucky individuals who was able to do important things that not only satisfied his own keen interests, but also left a continuing legacy for generations to come. On the Fox River below Montgomery, everyone who stalks fighting smallmouth bass and trophy muskies, who enjoys quiet canoe rides through a genetically rich and diverse riverscape, or who just likes to sit and appreciate the river’s beauty and serenity owes Bob Rung a vote of thanks for what he accomplished for the rest of us.

 

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

The days when the Rawleigh man came to call…

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

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

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

Rawleigh's Ointment

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

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

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

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

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

Omar Bread truck

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

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

Peter Wheat Bread comic.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Seem more humid these days? That’s because it probably is.

Note: The first version of this post was wrong, and thanks to commenter R. Anderson for pointing it out. Below is the new and (I’m fervently hoping) improved post. Math and I have never gotten along, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better the older I get…

Each summer, the Matiles up-stakes and head for Wisconsin’s Northwoods for periodic respites from the plague of corn pollen around these parts. The trips are unfortunately brief, but the respites are always welcomed.

I’ve been plagued with an allergy to grass pollen my entire life, something that makes living out here on the Illinois prairie during the summer months a trial. If it isn’t one kind of grass pollinating, it’s another. And a corn stalk, after all, is just a giant blade of grass.

Getting out of town this time of year, in fact, is a fine old Oswego tradition. On Aug. 19, 1880, the Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.” So I’m in good historical company, at least.

And corn just doesn’t affect us allergy sufferers, either. I saw a piece on the Weather Channel the other day about the effect all those fields of corn have on the weather here in northern Illinois. It turns out it’s a fairly large impact, especially on the fields’ impact on the region’s humidity.

In fact, it’s probably a lot more humid during mid-summer days now than it was 60 years ago, thanks to all that corn.

Why?

1938 Husking Stewart corn

Graeme Stewart used Case equipment to pick and husk the corn on his farm in Oswego and Wheatland townships back in 1938. Note how far apart the rows of corn are, as well as the space between each individual corn stalk. In pre-herbicide days, corn was planted at greater intervals to allow for more efficient mechanical cultivating.

In 1950, the U.S. Farm Census reported that Kendall County farmers grew about 80,000 acres of corn. During that era, individual corn plants were not spaced very close together. In fact, some farmers preferred to check or horse-step corn when they planted it, leaving an equidistant space between each individual stalk of corn and its neighbors. That allowed farmers to use their tractor-mounted cultivators to first run one direction, and then to do the field again perpendicular to the first go-round in order to get the weeds on all four sides of each stalk. That made a lot of sense in those pre-herbicide days when weeds had to be removed by hand.

By 2007, Kendall County farmers were planting more than 102,000 acres of corn. The increase in acreage was due to a number of factors, but was primarily caused by the shift from diversified farming, where each farm grew grain, forage, and livestock to today’s modern farming operations that specialize in either grain or livestock. All those fields in the 1950s that were dedicated to pastureland or planted in alfalfa and other forage crops, or oats and wheat are now planted in corn.

And not only are more acres of corn being cultivated in rural Illinois these days, but the corn plants themselves are much different than the ones farmers planted 60 years ago. Today’s corn is taller than its ancestors, grows much faster, and the plants are planted much more closely together.

A modern corn field

In this photo of a modern corn field, note how much closer together the rows of corn are, and how much closer together each individual corn plant is than they were in the photo taken of Graeme Stewart’s 1938 harvest.

These days, according to Delta Farm Press, farmers grow an average of 36,000 closely spaced corn plants on an acre of land. In 1900, according to Bulletin 111, “Corn Culture,” published by the Alabama Agricultural Station at Auburn, farmers were planting less than 3,200 plants per acre. Through the years, that number increased thanks to more efficient mechanical planters, better strains of corn, hybridization, and introducing better fertilizers. By the 1950s, Midwestern farmers were planting at least 10,000 plants per acre, and now they’re growing more than three times as many plants per acre.

Through the growing season, each one of those corn stalks draws a tremendous amount of water out of the soil for growth, and then transpirates 53 gallons of excess water into the atmosphere, most of it expelled during the prime growing season of July and August.

So do the math: Every modern acre planted in corn transpirates a total of nearly 2 million gallons of water during the growing season, with the bulk of it being expelled during the prime July and August growing season. And with Kendall’s 102,000 acres of corn, that means the plants are pumping 189 billion (that’s billion with a “b” son) gallons of water into the air during an average year. Back in 1950, each acre of corn was pumping out 530,000 gallons of water a season, which means, the county’s corn crop was transpirating 42.4 billion gallons of water into the atmosphere from early June through late September. That means about four and a half times the amount of humidity is being released today compared to 60 years ago.

An acre of prairie grass or other crops such as oats or wheat also transpirates water into the atmosphere, but at less than half the rates compared to corn.

So, it’s no wonder it seems a mite muggier around these parts nowadays. Crop scientists and meteorologists claim that dense corn fields can raise the dew point—the amount of humidity at which us humans become uncomfortable—by more than 10 percentage points or sometimes even more. The difference in the way you feel outside between a dew point of 50° and 70° is considerable.

And, of course, that’s just Kendall County. Head west on U.S. Route 30 or U.S. Route 34 or a country road like Galena Road, or south on Ill. Route 71 or Route 47, and you’ll see that there are millions of acres of corn in pretty close proximity to us here in the mid-Fox River Valley in DeKalb, Grundy, LaSalle, Kane, and all the other counties west to the Mississippi and south all the way to Marion and north to the Wisconsin border.

So yes, it was hot when I was a kid growing up, first on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and then here at the Matile Manse in Oswego, but it seems fairly clear that it probably wasn’t nearly as humid in July and August as it is these days.

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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The historical legacy of Marvin Lawyer

Unless you live around these parts, you probably didn’t hear about the death of Marvin Lawyer a couple weeks ago.

Lawyer, Marvin

Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person whose extraordinary love of one-room schools has left an invaluable historical legacy.

He died May 28 at the fine old age of 91 at the Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle.

Marvin was a lifelong Kendall County resident, except for the years he spent helping Uncle Sam beat the Nazis over in Europe during World War II. He served in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and central Europe and was sent back to Kendall County after the war, where he married, had a family, and led what amounted to a fairly ordinary life in those days.

As a child, he attended the old Inscho School, located in Section 18 of Kendall Township on Highpoint Road just south of Ill. Route 71. The school was named after the Inscho family, who originally owned the small parcel on which it was built.

The original school, then named the Long Grove School was built by subscription in 1841, the subscribers each contributing from one to three logs for its construction. In 1855, a new timber frame building was constructed under the terms of Illinois’ new law allowing property tax revenues to fund public schools and it also got its modern name.

Marvin graduated from Yorkville High School, served in the military, and then returned to farm, drive a school bus, work at the Aurora Post Office, and own small businesses in Newark, where he spent virtually the rest of his life.

While many remember Marvin as an avid rock collector, I remember him as someone fascinated with Kendall County’s one-room schools. Like me, he’d attended a one-room country school, and enjoyed the experience. In fact, he apparently enjoyed it so much that for a time he lived in the Inscho School after it had been converted into a private residence. By the early 1990s, Marvin’s interest had led him to begin collecting everything he could find on Kendall County’s one-room schools. I suspect he wasn’t sure what he’d do with all the information, but he doggedly kept at it.

That’s when I met him. He enjoyed my “Reflections” columns on local history in the Kendall County Record, and so he’d stop by the newspaper office from time to time to pick my brain about one-room rural schools in the Oswego area. He was always an interesting guy to chat with, and we exchanged information until 1995 when he finally self-published his 410-page The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County. He stopped by the newspaper office that year to proudly give me a copy as well as one for the Little White School Museum’s collections.

Union School cropped.jpg

The Union School, District 48, in Kendall County was the home of both a Presbyterian Church and a one-room school. The congregation went on to build the AuSable Grove Presbyterian Church, after which the building was used solely as a school. Today it has been moved to the Lyon Historical Farm and Village near Yorkville, where it has been restored. (Little White School Museum collection)

The book is not a polished history, but rather is simply the most invaluable reference on the county’s old country schools anywhere in existence. He was able to track down 99 of them that were in operation at one time or another through the years. Some were familiar—the Fern Dell School has been restored by Newark’s Fern Dell Historical Association and the Union School was moved to the Kendall County Historical Society’s Lyon Farm and Village, where it was likewise restored. But others—the Sandy Bluff, the Booth, the Porter, and the Asbury schools, for instance—were much more obscure.

But for each, he interviewed former students to get their stories, tried to find out who the teachers had been, described the buildings, and tried to obtain photographs.

The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County was obviously a labor of love, the kind of project that guarantees his name will be remembered long after his death. Which, of course, is not at all why he did it. He did it because he loved his county and his community and he was determined to set down a record of one part of its fast-disappearing history—its one-room country schools—before the memories of them faded forever.

It was a task at which he succeeded, and along the way, which has left a priceless record of an important time in the lives of so many thousands of people that will never be again. Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing for which students of Kendall County history will be forever grateful.

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Filed under History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

It was all relative…but not all of the time

It was such a beautiful day Sunday here in the Fox Valley that we did considerable work outside. As a reward for my son doing some chores, some up on a ladder, I grilled bratwurst and then simmered them in beer (I figure it’s what God invented Pabst Blue Ribbon for) and yellow onions for our first meal out on the patio this year.

As we ate, we chatted about families, and our family in particular. My son noted that our concept of family doesn’t match that of many of his friends. In my family, formerly almost all farmers, extended family members are all considered aunts, uncles, and cousins no matter how far removed. Apparently, among his friends this is no longer a common family practice.

At our yearly family reunion—we’ll be holding the 89th annual event on the second Sunday in August—second, third, and fourth cousins abound.

And, in fact, it got me to thinking about my early childhood in a close-knit farming community where several of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents were actually no relation at all.

1915 abt Wheatland "Scotch" Church.jpg

The Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church about 1915 was a relatively new building, and served a neighborhood of majority Scots immigrant farmers. (Little White School Museum collection)

There was Granny Ferguson, who lived down by the neighborhood one-room school where a tiny sort of residential subdivision had grown up, seemingly by accident. The Wheatland United Presbyterian Church, nicknamed the Scotch Church because of its overwhelmingly Scottish early membership, was at the intersection of modern Heggs and Ferguson roads, across Ferguson Road from the school, which was known (naturally) as Church School.

That’s where my sisters and I went to elementary school, my oldest sister going through all eight grades where she was the only one in her class for virtually all eight years.

A few houses, including Granny Ferguson’s, had sprung up around the church-school intersection. I was of absolutely no relation to Granny Ferguson, nor to Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, who lived right next to the church across from the school. They were among my parents’ best friends, and so became default uncle and aunt. Unlike my parents’ friends, Octa and Howard Gengler, who were also dear friends, but who were never an uncle nor aunt, but were just plain Howard and Octa. However, the neighbors to our farm to the north were Auntie Grace and Uncle Herb Norris—again, no relationship whatsoever, but close friends so for some mysterious reason became aunt and uncle. Grandma Rance, Auntie Grace’s mother, lived in the little next door to the Norris’s classic American Foursquare.

1936 abt Clarence Lloyd Bernice

A typically out-of-focus snapshot taken by my mother of (L-R) my dad and Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, the men looking particularly natty in their tall boots, during a Wisconsin trip about 1936.

And not only that, but Auntie Bernice Bower’s mother and father became Grandma and Grandpa Anderson. Who were not to be confused with Granny Stewart lived in the neighborhood and who mysteriously faded in and out of my childhood memories. So far as I know, not a drop of shared blood was in our veins.

And I shouldn’t give Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken short shrift, either. When my dad, a young former Kansas cowboy and oilfield roustabout, arrived in the neighborhood looking for farmwork, they hired him and introduced him to the Scotch Church community, where he met his future father-in-law, and through him, my mother. I should mention that my grandparents were Lutherans, but since there was no Lutheran church in the farm neighborhood, they went to the nearby Scotch Church. Because that’s what Protestants do. Or did, at least. Didn’t like the Methodist minister? Okay, we’ll go to the Presbyterian Church until he goes somewhere else. My Catholic friends never could get their minds around this practice.

1910 McMicken, Jim & Bess farm E

Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken’s Wheatland Township farm, with its stately Four-Square house, was a place I visited frequently as a child. (Little White School Museum collection)

But anyway, my dad worked for the McMickens before he and my mom married in 1930, and forever after, the Matiles were all considered family. Aunt Bess looked after me when I was a youngster, and she made the most delicious cottage cheese from the leftover milk from our productive Guernsey cow, Daisy. When my wife and I were married, the McMickens gave us a piece of their family furniture, a glass door fronted Mission Style bookcase that still fills a prominent corner of our living room.

And then there was Grandma Fitzpatrick, who was the mother of my actual uncle-by-marriage, Les Penn. I was a little unclear until a bit later in life why Grandma Fitzpatrick could be Uncle Les Penn’s mother when they had different last names, but in the welter of random aunts, uncles, and grandparents in which I lived it was not as big a deal as it might have been for some.

1945 Gerald Holzhueter

My uncle and first cousin once removed Gerald, who requested that my grandparents legally adopt him before he went off to serve in World War II.

And if that wasn’t confusing enough, there a number of uncles in my life who were related, but who weren’t actually uncles. Rather, they were cousins of various degrees. My Uncle Gerald, for instance, started out his life as my first cousin once removed—his mother and my grandmother were sisters, who were extremely close all their lives. Unfortunately, Aunt Edith (my grandmother’s sister) died almost immediately after giving to her seventh child—Gerald. On her deathbed, Edith asked my grandmother to promise to raise Gerald as her own child, which my grandmother faithfully did. Before he went off to fight in World War II, Gerald asked my grandparents to officially adopt him, which they did, and so he became not only my first cousin once removed but also my uncle by adoption. His two children are not only my first cousins, but also my second cousins.

Of Gerald’s brothers, only one, Oliver, was called uncle by me and my sisters. On the other hand, some of my other first cousins once removed—the children of one of my grandmother’s brothers—did get the designation. In that family were Uncle Herbert, Uncle Wilfred, and Aunt Esther.

This was particularly mystifying for a youngster because I never really knew at first whether an aunt, uncle, or grandparent was actually one, whether they were even tangentially related or not.

I suspect that figuring out who was who and then keeping all those relationships straight was what got me interested in history. When my wife and I got married, she had a bit of a struggle trying to figure out which grannies, aunties, and uncles were actually related, since calling non-blood relatives by those names was, in her family, pretty much not done. But, since she was a history major, too, it didn’t take long before she was able to keep track of what was what.

Today, all of those relatives by courtesy are long gone, although our era of claiming even the most distant cousins as part of the family continues pretty much unabated. It’s one remnant of those days when the term “extended family” meant more than precisely that, something that provided a warm, comfortable security blanket to those of us lucky to enjoy it.

 

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Filed under Farming, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events