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When toy heaven opened on Main Street…

Holiday season has rolled around one more time, but somehow it doesn’t seem like Christmas just yet. Maybe this year’s singular lack of snow, ice, and nasty weather  here in northern Illinois has something to do with my feelings on the subject. Who knows?

Back when I was a fourth grade student at Oswego’s old Red Brick School, Christmas was considered by all of us youngsters a very special time of year. During the latter years of the 1950s, there weren’t as many commercials on television—we just had three channels to choose from back in the old days, so there wasn’t as much television, either. Today, commercials are aimed at the demographics advertisers figure watch whatever of the hundreds of channels are beamed into our homes. Lots of prescription drug and patent medicine ads on The Hallmark Channel and women’s products on Lifetime, for instance. And tune in Nickelodeon or one of the other kids’ commercial channels, and you’ll be inundated with commercials aimed at kids.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show's run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg's Sugar Corn Pops.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show’s run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops.

Back in those early TV days, an awful lot of programming aimed at kids seemed  to have been funded by food companies. “Wild Bill Hickok,” for instance, was sponsored by Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, to the extent that Wild Bill (played by Guy Madison in buckskins, who bore absolutely no resemblance to the real Wild Bill) decorated the Sugar Pops box. His image lingered there like one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts years after the show was yanked from the airwaves. Sugar Corn Pops themselves have morphed these days into just plain Corn Pops, Kellogg’s apparently hoping no one will notice they’re coated with sugar if the word isn’t mentioned in the cereal’s name.

And there was also “Captain Midnight” and his chief mechanic and comic relief Icky Mudd (with two d’s), which was sponsored by Ovaltine. I hated evil-tasting Ovaltine. But then Captain Midnight went into syndication and was mysteriously transformed into Jet Jackson, whose show was sponsored by Jets cereal. I couldn’t stand Jets cereal, and it didn’t like me, either. God knows I tried to eat enough boxes of the stuff because I really needed those box tops, only to have my body reject it like some poor fellow rejecting his transplanted heart.

So, anyway, we had a lot of cereal advertising, but very little toy advertising. Until Christmas time, that is. When Christmas rolled around, all the afternoon and noontime shows—“The Two-Ton Baker Show,” “Elmer the Elephant,” “Super Circus,” “Uncle Johnny Coons” —featured a ton of toy advertisements aimed at us Baby Boomers, as we oozed through the nation’s social fabric like a giant rodent through a python.

Shuler's Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Shuler’s Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Our real problem, as ’50s kids, was not deciding what kind of toy we wanted most for Christmas, it was trying to get a look at the real thing. Here in Oswego, the only stores that sold toys were Carr’s Department Store and Shuler’s Drug Store. Carr’s had a tiny, not very good toy section, and Shuler’s selection of toys, which was only marginally better, was located on a couple of shelves at the back of the store. We had to deal with those conditions for most of the year. But at Christmas time, though, things changed drastically.

Al Shuler apparently loved Christmas, and, carrying on an Oswego drug store tradition that stretched back into pre-Civil War days, sponsored a huge Christmas toy sale and display in the second floor meeting hall above his store. He contracted with Mr. and Mrs. Carr, who owned the department store just down the block, to manage the sales portion of the annual event.

About Thanksgiving, the doors officially opened, and everyone was invited to climb the narrow, creaky, steep flight of stairs to what, for us, amounted to Toy Heaven.

After a hard day hitting the books (and sometimes each other) at the Red Brick School, we’d walk down to so some serious toy gazing before heading home. The school was located on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets, just two blocks from Shuler’s, and when the day’s final school bell rang, a mob of pushing and shoving munchkins would headed downtown, warmly dressed in zippered coats and five- buckle boots. To cross busy Madison Street—U.S. Route 34—to get

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego's old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego’s old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

downtown, we’d use the pedestrian crosswalk signal lights at Jackson Street. There is no power on Earth like that felt by a fourth grader who is able to stop a whole line of autos, buses, and semi-trucks–even if it wass the elderly Mr. Donnelly who did the actual button-pushing. As traffic ground to a halt, we’d amble across the roadway with the same feeling General Patton must have felt when he wielded complete control of the Third Army in World War II.

On Main Street, we’d clamber up the steep wooden stairway into a large room which was filled with long tables laden with more toys than any of us had ever seen in one place. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains, Mattel six-guns and rifles and dolls, Marx electric trains and toys, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Structo trucks and fire engines (that really worked!), and game and puzzle sets by the hundreds were spread before our eyes.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

We’d spend hours looking at all those toys, imagining what it would be like to own a Flexible Flyer, or a Mattel pistol that really shot plastic bullets—imagination was a big part of the whole Christmas scene, not to mention the rest of our lives as children.

Today, however, children are bombarded with ads for toys of all kinds on a daily basis all year long. The special feeling that Christmas used to generate when we hoped for that one much-desired and fantasized-about toy seems to have ended in a rush by parents for whatever seems to be on the current year’s hot list. Back then we never really knew what we’d get for Christmas—our parents usually decided that (at least in part) what we wanted for Christmas and what we needed were two entirely different things. I never noticed any feelings of guilt on the part of parents who bought their children a less expensive toy than the one hoped for.

As a Missouri newspaper editor put it in one of our exchanges down at the newspaper office some 30 years ago now, today’s parents are apparently confusing the word “disappoint” with “deprive” as they fight and trample heir way to the counter to snatch the last whatever hot-selling toy in stock.

It‘s hard to persuade children to be satisfied with less when they’re constantly bombarded with instructions to beg for more from their parents. But it’s not impossible. As our parents found out, “no” can sometimes be exactly the right word.

 

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The handwriting’s no longer on the wall…

So I was chatting with some friends recently, and the subject of handwriting in school came up. It turns out that many school districts across the county are now eliminating teaching cursive handwriting as an essential skill.

I’m not sure what the real reasons for this are, but I can think of a few right off the top of my head.

First, in today’s computer-driven society, where even our watches are becoming machines that put Dick Tracy’s wrist radio to shame, keyboarding skills have become paramount. Back in the stone age, we used to call it typing, but that was when there were machines called typewriters in which the typist rolled in a sheet of paper, held their hands at just the right angle, and then typed. At 40 words per minute if he or she wanted to pass Typing I.

By that time, “typewriter” referred to the machine, an not the person who was using it. As Lorenzo Rank but it in his “Oswego” column in the March 11, 1898 Kendall County Record: “Bessie Armstrong, now one of the stenographers and typewriters, came home from Chicago to spend Sunday.”

When I took high school typing, handwriting was still an essential skill that elementary kids spent a lot of time learning. Most elementary classrooms had depictions of correct upper and lower case cursive letters on cardboard strips up above the blackboard so there would be no excuse for failing to create a proper capital letter Q.

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

I learned cursive in second grade out in our one-room country school, first with pencil, and then graduating to (just like the big kids!) pen and ink. The ink pens we learned on were plastic dip pens with steel nibs that had to be dipped in an ink bottle every few letters. The wet ink then had to be blotted so you didn’t accidentally drag your shirt cuff through it and smudge your masterpiece. Ink blotters, in fact, were a major advertising medium during that era, with all sorts of businesses giving them out for free.

In the middle of my third grade year, when we moved into town, I was mildly shocked, and somewhat insulted, that my classmates were all still a) printing and b) writing in pencil.

The kids in country and town schools through the last of the 19th Century and start of the 20th, learned using the Spencerian Method invented and popularized by Platt Rogers Spencer. That was replaced by the Palmer Method developed by A.N. Palmer and spread nationwide in Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing, in which, by the way, my mother was an expert. She learned it in grade and high school and perfected it in a business college course.

Our school handwriting was very similar to Palmer’s, and was practiced daily.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

For reasons lost to the mists of time, we weren’t allowed to use ballpoint pens for some years. Fountain pens were fine, but the things leaked. So it was a lifesaver when the Shaeffer company came out with their cartridge ink pens. No filling from ink bottles any more, just buy a small box of plastic cartridges at the drug store and you were good to go. But eventually, the value of ballpoints penetrated the educational system. Our handwriting was a lot less messy, the blotter makers went the way of buggy whip manufacturers, and all was good and right with the world.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, from my senior year of high school, tells me so.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, that dates to my senior year of high school, tells me so.

Then, as I noted above, some of us learned typing in high school, which proved a very valuable skill. It was also challenging. We learned on standard QWERTY typewriters, but with the exciting modification of blank keys. The keyboard layout was printed on a poster above the blackboard at the front of the room. And no, I don’t remember why our typing room had blackboards.

For some of us, typing was, literally, a life-saver. A friend of mine, drafted into the U.S. Army during Vietnam, was appointed to clerical duties in his engineering company because he could type. It didn’t stop him from hunkering in a bunker and shooting up the bad guys with an M-79 grenade launcher during the Tet Offensive, but to a great extent, it kept him out of lots of other potentially fatal situations.

Typing was also a money maker during college, since the skill wasn’t universal and by that time, term papers were required to be typed in many classes.

Typing didn’t become keyboarding until the computer age dawned. In another interesting tern of events, “computer” had also once been the name of a person’s job, just like “typewriter.” But starting in the late 1970s, computers began requiring keyboards to input data. By the 1980s school boards all over the country were coming to the conclusion that all this computer stuff was something more than a technological flash in the pan. And by the 1990s, “keyboarding” was starting to be considered a basic skill, right along with handwriting.

And then came laptops, smart phones, tablets, and all the rest of the revolution we’ve been living through the past few decades.

Now, it appears, keyboarding has overtaken handwriting, as have more esoteric skills such as texting using nimble thumbs, which all the cool kids know is the rage these days.

Which brings us to the second reason handwriting is disappearing as a skill taught in school—which really has nothing to do with technology, and, when you stop to think about it, not much to do with improving education, either. Handwriting is simply not conducive to modern testing. And the modern mania for “high stakes” testing has pretty much left skills like handwriting in the dust. If it’s not on standardized tests, it is not, for the most part, taught.

So gone is handwriting, and so are lots of other things, like local history because giant testing companies owned by conglomerates overseen by distant financiers understand they can’t be shoehorned into a nationally-normed test. Education, of course, is not the goal here; making money is. For years, the folks who’ve been vacuuming up everyone’s tax dollars have been trying to figure out how to get at that huge pool of property taxes that support local government. With the ‘education reform’ movement, charter schools, and the Common Core, they figure they’re good to go.

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Filed under Frustration, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

So what’s the deal with all these school districts?

It’s hard to blame folks for being confused about which school district their kids should or do attend. Currently, the Oswego School District serves students who live in unincorporated Kendall, Kane, and Will counties, plus the municipalities of Oswego, Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville, Plainfield, and Joliet. Most of the towns, of course, have their own school districts. So why do kids living in Joliet find themselves going to school in a school located inside Plainfield’s municipal limits that belongs to the Oswego School District?

For the answer, we need to go back to the 1930s, when it was decreed that high school districts should be formed to include every place in Illinois. Eventually, most–but not all–of those high school districts merged with elementary districts within their bounds to form unit school districts educating children from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. But for most districts, that was some decades in the future.

About 1929, Alex Harvey posed with the district’s only bus he drove to collect Oswego High School students in the rural areas served by the school. When the photo was snapped, his only passenger was his sister, Virginia. (Little White School Museum photo)

In this area, the educators and school boards of the 1930s knew it made a lot of fiscal sense to persuade as many farmers as possible to annex to their school districts. That’s because while a farm might cover hundreds of acres, generally there was just one family of children living on it. So property tax on farmland was a winner for the districts. Lots of revenue rolled in, but few students had to be educated.

It was the same with industrial and other commercial property, but back then there was relatively little of that in Kendall County outside Plano, which had been in industrial town since it’s inception as a stop on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

So school superintendents drove all over the countryside talking up the advantages of annexing to their school districts. In general, farmers picked a district to which their families had ties, either through shopping or where their relatives lived. That resulted in school districts large in area but, until the latter years of the 20th Century, quite small in enrollment, meaning school officials made pretty shrewd bets on protecting taxpayers.

But then enter the era of fast growth, and all that rich farmland was eyed by ambitious developers. The first of the major post-World War II developers was Don L. Dise, who, with a consortium of investors, bought the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family and turned it into one of the largest unincorporated subdivisions in Illinois. All those Baby Boomer kids living in new houses on what had previously been crop and pasture land were funneled into Oswego’s schools.

As growth accelerated through the end of the century and into the new 21st Century, those 60 year-old decisions to annex as much farmland as possible began looking more and more shortsighted. But to be fair to those long-ago officials, no one, even as late as the 1960s, ever expected the municipal boundaries of Plainfield and Aurora to touch, nor those of Plainfield and Oswego, or of Yorkville and Sugar Grove as they do today.

In fact, it’s still hard for many of us today to realize just how large our once-tiny farming communities have grown. At a school board meeting somewhere around 2000, Joel Murphy, then the Oswego School District’s business manager, suggested that when fully developed, an area requires about one elementary school per square mile. That means that the Oswego School District, with 68 square miles, can eventually expect to build and maintain more than 60 elementary schools along. Yorkville, with its 85 square miles, can eventually expect to have more than 80 elementary schools.

If only we could accurately predict the future, how much easier we could make life. However, all we can do is use the best evidence we have at the time decisions are to be made, and inform it with whatever wisdom we’ve been able to acquire over the years. Even then, many of the most momentous decisions must be approved by voters who often have little in-depth knowledge of what goes into making those decisions, and who can be easily swayed by those with their own personal axes to grind. It’s an often cumbersome and expensive system resulting in many expensive false starts as decisions have to be redone again and again as they are found to be faulty. And then done again as the lessons they should have taught are promptly forgotten. But it’s the system we have to work with, which is why it’s important to make absolutely sure the people we elect have the best interests of all at the forefront, not just the interests of themselves or this or that small pressure group.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

History repeating itself?

The on-going craziness of the Oswego School District Board brings back some bad memories of the district’s travails during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the board, in their infinite wisdom, bought out the contract of one superintendent, attempted to hire one of their own members to the position (but retreated under threat of being sued by the Kendall County State’s Attorney), and wasted years with a clearly unprepared superintendent who was also given the (justified this time) boot.

I keep thinking to myself, “I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.” But thanks, school district voters, for electing a bunch that seem to enjoy creating controversy more than creating good educational opportunities for students.

True more now than ever: Those of us who know our history really are condemned to watching others repeat it.

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Filed under Frustration, Kendall County, Oswego

Boulder Hill school a fun anniversary celebration…

It was fun and interesting both to be invited to the 50th anniversary party at Boulder Hill School on Friday, April 20. The school tapped me, Pat Torrance of Montgomery, and the redoubtable State Rep. Kay Hatcher to talk to a student assembly about the history of Boulder Hill and of the school.

After classes were dismissed, a group of us were invited to speak again, this time to a mixed group of staff, students, and parents at the building to attend an anniversary open house. Kay had to leave, and her place was filled by Cliff Fox, who is the nephew of Margaret Dise, wife of Don L. Dise, Boulder Hill’s founder. Pat and I gave our parts of the program, and Cliff recounted some really interesting behind-the-scenes stuff about Boulder Hill. One of the graphics shown on the big screen in Boulder Hill’s cafetorium, from the Little White School Museum’s collections, was the architect’s drawing, below, of the school:

Image

Here are a few fun facts about Boulder Hill’s early years the folks at the celebration learned:

1. The success of the development was due to the two G.I. Bills passed by Congress (for World War II and Korea veterans)  from whence came most of the money to buy the houses there.

2. No foreclosures were allowed by Dise. His real estate company bought houses before they could be foreclosed, thus eliminating the whole idea of vacant homes in the development.

3. Dise was a visionary, who not only contributed, free of charge, the 12 acres on which to build Boulder Hill School and another adjoining parcel on which the Boulder Hill Neighborhood Church of the Brethren was built, but who also donated $100 for every building permit that had been issued by the time construction on the school began.

4. The vote to issue bonds to build Boulder Hill School passed 1,340 to 199, surely the most lop-sided school referendum vote in Oswego School District history.

A fun history time was had by all…

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Reliving the worst of local history over and over…

Over the past several months, just about all the top administrators in the Oswego area community have decided to bail out of town. What’s going on? Well, mostly, it’s what happens when voters hire extreme activists as board members instead of people who have the long-term welfare of the agencies they’re seeking to run in mind.

There are exceptions, of course. Bill McAdam, for instance, is leaving the park district because he not only got a better job, but it’s closer to his current home as well as to his home town.

But Oswego’s village administrator was driven out by toxic politics, as has Montgomery’s excellent village manager, probably one of the best in the Fox Valley. In Montgomery’s case, it appears that activist board members whose ideology has outstripped their common sense simply had too many problems with a smart, capable woman in a top administrative position. The Oswego School District superintendent is also leaving, along with every other top manager, due to philosophical disagreements with the school board. They’re substantive differences, too, some of the most serious dealing with school board members’ determination to ignore–if not intentionally violate–the School Code of the State of Illinois.

About all we, who didn’t vote for any of the people making these terrible and destructive decisions, can do now is wait for the inevitable melt-down and the general public’s disgust to get some decent board members elected again. We’ve seen it happen time after time, and, in fact, it’s sort of an area tradition dating back to at least the 1890s.

In the spring 1890 elections for Oswego Village Board, a political earthquake struck. The election campaign in Oswego was typically sleepy, with the same candidates running for the same offices, which back then required annual elections. But there was an activist undercurrent. Sort of like today’s right wing, Tea Party affiliated ideological activist politicians, a group of ardent prohibitionists got themselves elected to stamp out Oswego’s saloons. As Lorenzo Rank, the Oswego correspondent for the Kendall County Record reported on April 16, 1890:

Oswego was struck Tuesday by a tidal wave of temperance mixed with a good deal of something else. The no-license ticket was elected by 37 majority out of a vote of 141, G.H. [Gustavus H.] Voss as president and Sam Jessup, Will I. Kennedy, and Harley Richards as trustees were elected.

The next week, Rank reported:

There hasn’t such surprise been caused by any corporation election in Oswego as by that of last Tuesday since the time of the “Finnigins,” and that is so long ago this generation doesn’t know anything about it. The pulling through of the temperance ticket was thought possible, but only by the skinning of the teeth, and the question now is, “To what is this great victory due?” Some hold it resulted from the religious revival last fall; others that it was brought through the influence of the temperance organizations. Then there are those who argue that “all the good comes through evil,” and that it is due to the much drunkenness lately exhibited. It is also said that internal dissension was the cause, that a vigorous knifing of each other of the license men had been going on. But no matter about the cause, let it be known that Oswego is now temperance 2-1..The new members of the board are quite young; all are yet in the 20s, the president being but 23 years old. Some refer to them as “the kids of the board,” but they are displaying as much dignity and statesmanship as the best ever on the board.

And the “kids” got right to work, abolishing the village’s saloon licenses, which was fine as far as it went. The problem was, however, that saloon licenses were virtually the village’s sole source of revenue. That meant that plans to extend the village’s water system and it’s growing web of concrete sidewalks was stopped in its tracks. In response, and in a move that mirrors what has happened when modern politicians attempted to fight ideological activist majorities, the pro-license members of the board simply refused to attend meetings, denying quorums for nearly the entire ensuing year.

By the following spring, the voters–then all male–in Oswego decided enough was enough and a pro-license ticket of village board members was elected. Rank explained the who thing pretty clearly, with some advice to modern would-be activists:

The greatest difficulty about government is not how to manage the people or the affairs of the country, but it is how the officials shall manage themselves. At the commencement of the new village administration last year, the “kids,” or new members, and being in the majority, started out somewhat brash, carelessly brushing away the suggestions the old members were making, as much as to say, “We are going to run this here machine.” The old members then refused to attend any more of the meetings, thus breaking the quorum and the village was left to run itself and perhaps as one full as well as with the help of the board.

When the votes were counted in the April 1891 village election, the anti-license “kids” had been crushed by huge majorities, most likely done in, as Rank suggested, by their own hubris.

Is there a moral here for modern politicians at the local, state, and national levels. Sure there is, but morals abound in history. The problem is politicians seldom ever pay any attention whatsoever to them. Mostly, I suspect, this is because politicians are not the sharpest bunch of knives in the drawer; they tend to be folks without deep understandings of much beyond their own mindsets. It’s really up to voters to dig into candidates’ views on all sorts of subjects to determine whether or not they deserve to be entrusted with the public trust; far too many don’t. As it now stands, those of us who know our history are forever condemned to watching others repeat it, with sadly predictable results.

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April 10, 2012 · 4:14 pm