Tag Archives: Oswego

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milk Strike

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

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

The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:

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

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

May 13, 2010. Photo by Margaret Gienger.

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

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

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

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

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

1934 May 11 Dust Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinch Bug

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

There was no room for amateurs during the annual threshing season

About this time of year during our great-grandparents’ era, as “small grains” including oats, wheat, barley, and rye were rapidly ripening, the threshing season on area farms was just getting ready to begin.

Threshing outfits were too expensive for average farmers to buy on their own, and required far more labor to operate than a single farm could supply. Not that there weren’t a few individuals who owned them, of course. Irvin Moyer, who owned a machine shop that catered to local farmers at the intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Douglas Road here in Oswego Township, owned a threshing machine and a huge Aultman-Taylor gasoline-powered tractor. Moyer did custom threshing for many area farmers with his rig, as did Clarence Shoger from over Naperville way and Thad Seely on the west side of the Fox River.

But most farmers formed cooperative threshing rings of as few as four and up to a dozen farmers. Each member bought one or two shares in the ring and then participated in the annual harvest, with the threshing rig and the participating farmers and hired hands traveling from one farm to the next around the ring.

The Woolley Ring, for instance, operated on farms mostly located in School District 6 in the Woolley and Collins Road areas east of Oswego, while farmers on the Oswego Prairie along Wolf’s Crossing Road formed the East Oswego Ring. Farmers throughout the rest of Kendall County formed similar cooperatives in their neighborhoods.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the road to the next farm about 1900, with the steam traction engine pulling the ring’s threshing machine. Photo supplied by Dale Updike, Alberta, Canada, Little White School Museum Collection.

The East Oswego Ring owned an Aultman-Taylor threshing machine; a 20-40 Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-powered internal combustion tractor bought about 1918; a 100-foot drive belt; a canvas tarpaulin big enough to cover the threshing machine while it was stored between harvests; four big tarpaulins used to cover loads of grain in case of rain and overnight during the threshing process; and an equipment storage shed located on the Burkhart Farm. The engineer (who operated the tractor powering the threshing machine), the separator man (who operated the threshing machine itself), and the blowerman (who had to skillfully direct the flow of straw after it was stripped of grain kernels into neat straw stacks) were appointed at the ring’s annual meeting.

Farmer members of the ring were expected to supply the labor for the less skilled jobs in the ring including bundle haulers, bundle pitchers, and grain men. Unlike the skilled jobs, men and boys who filled the other positions usually rotated because some jobs were more desirable than others. Pitching bundles of grain into wagons from the field was considered a choice job, while grain men working in the heat, noise, and dust of the threshing machine itself were less likely to enjoy their work.

1912 Acme Binders

Photo of 25 Acme Queen binders taken June 22, 1912 on “The Flats” immediately north of the Oswego bridge, site of modern Hudson Crossing Park. Oswego implement dealer Bob Johnston sold the binders to local farmers for the 1912 harvest season. The photo, probably taken from the interurban trolley trestle, was snapped by H. R. Krueger, Yorkville.

At each ring’s annual meeting, generally called at about this time of year, right before threshing started, the jobs, labor rotation, any equipment purchases, and maintenance schedules were all laid out. Within a day or two, the threshing machine was taken out of storage and thoroughly checked, as was the giant belt that powered it. The ring’s tractor, whether steam or internal combustion, was serviced and readied for work. In rings with steam tractors, the engineers and firemen checked their machines carefully, because of the danger of bursting a boiler or some other equally serious accident could cause permanent injury or death.

As these preparations proceeded, the work of binding grain was wrapping up. Horse drawn binders cut and bound stalks of small grains into bundles a foot or so in diameter, each bundle, depending on the brand of binder, secured with either twine or wire. From the time of their invention until the 1920s, teams of horses pulled binders through the fields.

Amish oats in shocks

Oat shocks, which allow ripe grain to dry in preparation for threshing, are made of grain bundles cleverly stacked with other bundles fashioned into a relatively weather-tight roof. These shocks are on a modern Amish farm

Afterwards, increasingly affordable and dependable gasoline-powered tractors pulled them. However they were powered, the machines were the first step in the harvest process, as the binder dropped tied bundles of ripe grain on the ground The bundles were then stacked by hand into shocks of 20 or so bundles for further drying. Skillful stackers gave each shock an artful weatherproof roof of grain bundles to thoroughly dry and await threshing.

Moving threshing machines from farm to farm on the poor roads of the era was not easy, and stories abound of tractors and machines getting stuck or worse.

On Nov. 26, 1890, the Kendall County Record reported one such major mishap involving a steam traction engine and threshing machine in Bristol Township:

“The steam thresher outfit of the Leighs, of Oswego, has been for some days on the west side of Blackberry Creek doing clover hulling and threshing; Monday afternoon they left Fred young’s place for home and attempted to cross the Blackberry creek at the mouth over the bridge near the mill. The thresher and the traction engine were coupled together. There were two men riding on the engine, Mr. Leigh and his engineer. The engine had passed about 12 feet on the bridge when a needle-beam pulled out of the bolts by which it was attached to the bridge chords, and the engine fell with a great crash through the bridge floor into the creek below, a distance of about 12 feet. The men on the engine jumped as the bridge gave way; one landed in the deep water just under the dam, the other lit on the rock bottom of the creek on the lower side, breaking four ribs, a collar bone and being badly bruised in his fall. The injured man was Mr. Fred Leigh Jr. one of the owners of the machine. He was taken to a house and Dr. Kinnett repaired his injuries and from thence to his home near Oswego. The outfit was new this season and is quite a loss. The separator did not follow; a timber in the front end caught a plank on the portion of the bridge which did not fall and it hung there on the brink.”

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

The East Oswego Threshing Ring’s original Aultman-Taylor steam traction engine and threshing machine are hard at work in this 1911 photo by Malcom Rance. The steamer was replaced in 1918 with a Rumely Oil Pull internal combustion tractor. (Little White School Museum collection)

The East Oswego Ring’s Rumely pulled their threshing machine from farm to farm, and the rings with steam engines for power also had to make sure the water and fuel wagons were brought along, too.

Siting a threshing machine was an art in itself. First, it had to be positioned so that the exhaust from the steam or internal combustion tractor, and its attendant sparks, would be kept away from the grain, dust, and straw produced by the threshing process. The 50 to 100-foot belts that extended from the power take-off of the tractors helped, but prevailing winds also had to be kept in mind, as did the likely location of the straw stacks that were the byproducts of the process. Straw was necessary for raising livestock (as both bedding and fodder), so it was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Creating a compact stack of high quality straw was one more technical skill that had to be mastered.

Running the giant belt, eight to 10 inches wide, 50 to 100 feet from the tractor to the threshing machine was also a high-skill job. Both machines had to be level with each other to avoid undue belt wear and to make sure the belt wouldn’t be thrown off the machines’ pulleys. “Setting” a threshing machine and its tractor was no job for greenhorns.

And after all that work, it had to be done again and again and again as the crew moved from farm to farm, often working 10 hour days, until all the grain in the ring had been threshed.

Today, farmers use giant combine harvesters to do the same job it took more than 20 men and boys, plus a half-dozen or so farm wives in the kitchen at each farm to do. The harvest ritual is still with us, but it’s a lot different now than then. Which pretty much sums up history in general, when you stop to think about it

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Filed under Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

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

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

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

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

Plank road sketch

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

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

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

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Filed under Aurora, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

Epic story of “10,000 Years of People on the Land”

Find out how experts use archaeological and archival techniques to understand the lives of the people who have lived in northeastern Illinois when the Little White School Museum hosts “10,000 Years of People on the Land” this Saturday, April 16.

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk Street) in Oswego.

 

1987 Jensen Site dig overview

The 1987 Jensen Site dig in Oswego uncovered an ancient Native American village site, complete with a workshop where stone tools were made. Archaeologist Joe Wheeler will explain the techniques historians and archaeologists use to fill in the blanks of the long history of human occupation in northern Illinois during “10,000 Years of People on the Land” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m., archaeologist Joe Wheeler will explain how the use of techniques from historical research to archaeological excavations are being used to trace and interpret the lifestyles of those who have lived in our region of Illinois for the past ten millennia. The first part of the program will focus on the region’s long history of geological change and human occupation. Part II will examine the tools archaeologists and historians use to understand the past.

A Cook County native, Wheeler is the U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located on the old Joliet Arsenal site in southern Will County. The sprawling former arsenal location is being restored to a tallgrass prairie ecology.

 

1987 Chip McGimsey lecture

Illinois State Museum Archaeologist Chip McGimsey demonstrates how Native Americans manufactured stone knives, scrapers, and other tools during a 1987 dig at the Jensen Site in Oswego.

Retiring after more than 28 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Wheeler pursued his life-long interest in archaeology by attending graduate school at the University of Wyoming on the post 9/11 GI Bill. He was then employed as a traveling field archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, working at national forests throughout the western and southwestern U.S. In 2013 he returned to Illinois to assume the duties as the Midewin Heritage Program Manager.

Pre-registration is not required. Admission the day of the program is $5 for this program geared for area residents 14 and older. Proceeds will benefit operations of the Little White School Museum, a joint project of the Oswegoland Heritage Association and the Oswegoland Park District.

For more information, call the museum, 630-554-2999, or send an email to info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History

112 year-old urban barn in danger of demolition

One of Oswego’s most historic urban barns has been in the news lately, and in a troubling way.

Our local library district has bought the land on which the small barn occupies a tiny corner, and they’ve announced plans to demolish the barn. According to the library district, there is “no record of any historical significance for the” barn and the small rental cottage on the property. They’re wrong, of course.

Urban barn plan

Urban barn plan with carriage room and stalls for horses and other livestock from Barn Plans and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted, Orange Judd Company, New York, 1881.

Urban barns, as an architectural class, are usually pretty unassuming. Virtually all of them (with the exception of the odd modern knock-off) were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in that day and age, lots in villages and in many towns and cities as well, resembled tiny farmsteads plunked down in urban settings.

Until sanitary sewer systems were widely introduced in the first half of the 20th Century, each small town residential lot featured the family home, an outhouse, and an urban barn. Sometimes a smokehouse and a small chicken house were also included.

Like their larger rural siblings, urban barns housed the family driving horse as well as the family buggy or carriage and often a cutter—a one-horse open sleigh—for winter travel. In addition, the barn also provided a home for the family milk cow, and often a small flock of chickens provided they didn’t have their own chicken house on the lot.

Matile Barn

The urban barn here at the Matile Manse started out its life as a timber-framed (oak and black walnut) saltbox-style house. It was moved a few dozen feet south in 1908 and my great-grandparents built their retirement home on its former site.

When the horse and buggy era ended, urban barns were easily converted into auto garages, workshops, and homes for lawnmowers and lawn sweepers. Over the years, some of those urban barns have even been converted into residences. In other cases back in the day, unwanted residences were also converted into urban barns—like the one here at the Matile Manse. When my great-grandparents bought the property our house sits on, it was already occupied by a timber-framed saltbox style house. Back then, in 1908, folks weren’t so quick to tear old buildings down. So the old house was put on rollers and moved a few dozen feet south to make room for the new house—and turned into an urban barn.

Today, Oswego has a fine collection of 19th and early 20th Century urban barns, possibly one of the best such collections in the Fox Valley. According to the village’s 2009 historic structure survey, conducted by Granicki Historical Consultants of Chicago, “Oswego stands apart from other towns in Northeastern Illinois with its enduring collection of urban barns.”

Granicki counted 22 urban barn examples in the village and labeled six as historically significant in their final report—including the one that the library district could find “no record of any historical significance.” Which suggests they weren’t looking very hard.

Historical preservation got a good start back in the last decade when the village established the Oswego Historic Preservation Commission. And shortly after, they paid for the historic structures survey. But since then, it’s been pretty much downhill when it comes to preserving local historic structures. Changes in the village board’s membership, as well as the turnover of other top elected and appointed officials has basically led to the commission being severely marginalized, with officials withdrawing support and even treating the group with outright hostility.

2016 Kohlhammer Barn

Unless community pressure changes its mind, the Oswego Public Library District plans to demolish the old Kohlhammer Barn.

The urban barn the library district would like to tear down differs from many others in Oswego in that we know who built, when, and why.

The May 18, 1904 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that “Fred Kohlhammer has completed the excavation for the basement for his barn on his lately acquired land north of the Waubonsie.”

Kohlhammer was a well-known German-American contractor in the Oswego area who built homes as well as farm and commercial buildings. The parcel he purchased was bordered to the south by Waubonsie Creek, to the east by the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25), to the north by North Street, and to the west by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way. The site Kohlhammer chose for his house was on a rise overlooking the creek, where the land fell off sharply towards the stream bank. Later, the Kohlhammers would extensively landscape that steep slope with perennials, rock gardens, and an artificial stream, the water for which was pumped from the creek by a scale model Dutch windmill. Interestingly enough, for the driveway to the house, Kohlhammer made use of a short stretch of the old Chicago to Galena Road that cut through the parcel on its way to the limestone-floored ford across the Fox River just to the west.

Kohlhammer placed his barn at the corner of the East River Road and North Street where it would be handy to the house and where it would be easy to store the family buggy and other equipment.

He chose to build a modified bank barn, with an upper floor for buggy and tack storage and a lower lever for the horse and cow stalls. And he built neatly and well, because upon completion in July 1904, the whole Kohlhammer family moved in while construction was on-going for their new home right next door. In early 1905, the family moved into their new home, and the barn was given over to its original purpose.

Some years ago, the barn and small adjacent rental cottage and remnant of the oak savanna on which they stood were separated from the house and sold as separate properties. And now the library district has purchased the barn and rental cottage and the oak savanna remnant. While the rental cottage, which dates to the early 1950s, is not historically significant, the urban barn certainly is.

So what will happen to this endangered urban barn? Well, the folks who own the house Fred Kohlhammer built in 1904 want to buy it from the library district and restore it. It’s situated on the extreme northeast corner of the property, meaning that piece could easily be clipped off and sold to the homeowners, who really want to restore and preserve it. So the barn could be saved at no cost to the taxpayers and the community would continue to enjoy a link with Oswego’s past that’s been standing on the same spot for the last 112 years.

Seems like a win-win, but then again modern folks usually seem fixated on demolishing things they neither want nor understand. Time will tell on this one.

And on a somewhat related note, I’m going to be giving my “Barning Around: Kendall County” presentation this coming Thursday, April 14, starting at 7 p.m. at the Big Rock Historical Society, 48W445 Hinckley Rd., Big Rock. It’s free, and the Big Rock folks won’t mind a bit if you stop by.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Semi-Current Events