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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1859 Underground Railroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Unintended consequences…

For some reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy connected with global climate change.

Well over 90 percent of climatologists say it’s proven science that us humans have greatly contributed to the warming of the earth’s climate since 1900, and even the big oil companies’ scientists told their bosses what was happening decades ago. In fact, there’s an interesting investigation going on right now where the attorneys general of several states are trying to determine whether Exxon misled the company’s investors about the issue.

But a lot of people still don’t buy the facts that have been laid out, mostly because those folks at Exxon didn’t only hide the facts their own scientists dug up from their own investors, but they also apparently bankrolled climate change denier individuals and organizations, muddying the waters for lots of us.

It’s not that hard to figure out what’s happening, though. Each recent year sets a new record as being the hottest on record, and individual months are regularly setting temperature records, too. But it’s not hard to find someone to dispute the fact of global climate change—although there aren’t a lot of them, the professional deniers are a pretty loud and determined bunch, once again proving muckraker Upon Sinclair’s dictum that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If you’re a seed catalog saver, you can get an easily understood look into what’s happening. Just look at how those hardiness zone maps keep changing. The zones where certain plants can grow keep steadily moving north, indicating average temperatures are continuing to rise.

Walleye

Walleye, one of Wisconsin’s most sought-after gamefish, are becoming rare in some of the state’s most popular resort areas, at least partly due to global climate change.

Up in northern Wisconsin, the change in the climate means some of the fisheries up there are changing, too. In the Minocqua area, largemouth bass, which is generally considered a warmer weather species, have begun to take over some of the lakes in that region. The Wisconsin DNR figures that the growing largemouth population is feeding on walleye fry, thus leading to a decrease in walleyes. And that’s bad for the resort industry up there because walleyes are a big, big draw for anglers. To try to do something about the situation, the DNR has banned keeping any walleyes caught for a five-year period, supposedly to give the species a chance to rebound against largemouth predation.

I’m pretty sure it won’t work. Those largemouth that are suddenly so prevalent aren’t there by happenstance; they’re there because the water’s warmer there now on average, making it a friendlier habitat for bass. Helping the walleye population by increasing their numbers through lack of angler harvest isn’t going to do a thing to cool off the water in Minocqua area lakes. But since the DNR is now prohibited from discussing climate change’s effects on Wisconsin wildlife, it’s going to be interesting to see how the subject is handled going forward. Because you can bet this is just the tip of this particular rhetorical iceberg.

When you think about unintended consequences, global climate change is this era’s prime example. When the Industrial Age got really going, I doubt anyone thought that burning all that coal and, later, oil was going to have a negative impact on the entire earth. Just like adding lead to gasoline, which was designed to make internal combustion engines run smoother and more efficiently, the ultimate impact was to inflict lead poisoning on several generations of Americans. The outcome of that was likely the spike in crime rates in the 1970s, according to some who’ve studied the topic. Banning leaded gasoline may well be the reason violent crime has been declining since the 1970s.

It’s when we fiddle with the earth’s ecology that those unintended consequences seem to have their biggest effects. The folks in Wisconsin are trying their best to do something about a process over which they have little control by doing something over which they do have at least a little influence, although it’s probably futile. It probably won’t comfort them to know that we’ve been messing with fish populations for generations, sometimes with negative implications that didn’t show up for decades.

German carp

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

The lowly carp is prime example number one of that. We take these ubiquitous rough, annoying fish for granted these days. But they only got in our rivers and creeks because the U.S. Government put them there in the first place, hoping to provide a useful, marketable species to benefit everyone.

So they imported a bunch of them from Germany with plans to stock them in streams the next year. They were considered so valuable that they used the reflecting pool on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to house them over the winter. Then in the spring they stocked them all over the place.

I’ve already written about the general reaction to this bit of ecological sabotage, noting the reaction was far from unanimously positive. But, as luck would have it, carp were stocked at about the same time streams in long-settled parts of the country were being stressed beyond their limits with almost unbelievable amounts of pollution, from raw human and animal waste to manufacturing byproducts, from coking mill waste to waste from coal gas plants. The effect of chemical poisons on streams was amplified by increasing amounts of agricultural runoff that was containing more and more silt as unwise farming practices created erosion.

As their gravel-bottomed spawning grounds were covered with silt the oxygen content of water in polluted streams drastically declined due to huge increases in chemical and human waste, game fish populations catastrophically declined.

Enter those carp. They were far more adaptable to filthy water conditions and positively thrived on the muddy stream bottoms that were being manufactured by a near-total lack of any controls on pollution. And because they liked the conditions they were introduced in, they thrived—and therefore were blamed for creating the conditions rather than being lauded for making use of them, much like those largemouth bass up in northern Wisconsin are being blamed today for decreasing walleye populations.

A classic example of blaming the messenger—carp—for stream quality happened on the Rock River in southern Wisconsin back in the 1970s. The Rock has several dams up there creating lots of recreational fishing at Beloit, Janesville, and other towns along the river’s course. By the ‘70s, some of those impoundments had gathered a lot of sediment and silt from agriculture runoff, and while carp were flourishing, gamefish were not. So the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided to try poisoning the all the fish in one of those impoundments, the idea being that without carp rooting around the bottom and creating silt-laden water that gamefish didn’t like.

So that’s what they did. And it worked. The impoundment was cleanses of carp—and all the other fish as well, and that had the effect of clearing the water right up. Residents living there were ecstatic—you could actually see the bottom again!

But getting rid of the carp didn’t get rid of the sediment, which was extremely rich in nutrients thanks to runoff from all the farm fields through which the river ran. And as soon as the water clarified, sunlight finally got down to the bottom, creating a veritable algae explosion. The stuff grew inches thick on the surface, died, and sank to the bottom where it decomposed, sucking whatever oxygen still remained out of the water, creating a smelly, slimy mess. Which made residents far from ecstatic. It took a frantic DNR quite a while to get the situation stabilized and to try to reverse it because the agriculture interests were not interested in doing what needed to be done to reduce runoff from their fields.

The main point the ecology movement tried to get across to people when it got started is that almost everything in the natural world is connected one way or another. And sometimes, because much of the time we neither understand nor recognize them in the first place, those connections come back to bite us when we mess with one part or another without careful consideration first.

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A labor of (community) love: The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

Way back in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to establish a month-long observation of efforts to preserve a bit of the nation’s history before it was demolished, paved over, or otherwise lost to future generations.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

The loss of the Oswego Depot to the wrecker’s ball lin 1970 alerted the community that its historic buildings were disappearing. (Little White School Museum photo)

It was right about that time, actually a little before, when efforts were underway to preserve Oswego’s railroad depot. Passenger service on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego had ceased in 1952, and by the 1960s the old depot was long obsolete. For us kids, it was always fascinating to peek in the windows to see the rows of seats in the passenger waiting room and the still-shiny brass fittings throughout the building.

In the late 1960s, the Oswego Jaycees announced they had a plan to preserve the building and turn it into a community museum. It would have made a good one, too. The Jaycees were negotiating in what they thought was good faith with the depot’s owners, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, when we all woke up one day to find the depot had been demolished literally overnight.

It was a shock to a community that had seen the landmark Red Brick School demolished to make way for the new Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office in 1965 and suffered another wake-up call when a devastating 1973 fire in the downtown business district that destroyed two storefronts in the historic Union Block that had been built in 1867.

1970 LWS front cropped

When word got around the community that the landmark Little White School was in danger of being torn down, a grassroots community group, the Oswegoland Heritage Association, was formed to save it. (Little White School Museum collection)

So when word got around that the Oswego School District was contemplating the sale of the Little White School, one of the village’s most familiar remaining landmarks, it caused a group of history-interested persons to start thinking about ways the building could be saved.

Historic preservation in general got a bit shot in the arm during the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Supporters of saving the Little White School piggybacked off that interest to establish the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association, whose main goal was to save the historic old building from destruction, restore it, and establish a community museum there.

In order to get the job done, the founders of the OHA worked to create a unique three-way partnership between the nonprofit group; the Oswego School District, which owned the building; and the Oswegoland Park District, whose executive director, Ford Lippold, was one of the moving forces behind the formation of the OHA. The OHA pledged to coordination and raise funds to finance the building’s restoration; the park district pledged to maintain the school grounds (which they named Heritage Park) and provide regular building maintenance and operations financial support; and the school district agreed to maintain ownership of the building.

Because the school district had planned to sell the building for several years before restoration efforts began, they’d allowed it to badly deteriorate. There were three or four layers of roofing, none of which were weather-tight; the shingle siding added in the 1930s was deteriorating; and the structure was in generally poor overall condition.

1901 LWS as ME Church

This postcard view of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church–later the Little White School–was created about 1901 after a major remodeling project was finished, including the addition of the bell tower and diamond-patterned glass panes in the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although called the Little White School to differentiate it from the nearby Red Brick School (Oswego school names have never been very innovative), the building wasn’t really all that little. Built on its site at the “Y” intersection of Jackson and Polk streets in 1850 as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, the timber-framed building measured 36 x 50 feet, and featured a bell and bell tower. During restoration work it was discovered that it’s likely the building had been constructed and used elsewhere and then dismantled and moved to Oswego. Doing such a thing with a timber frame building is not nearly as difficult as with a more modern balloon frame structure. The structure’s 11” x 11” oak and walnut timbers were fastened together using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. Ceiling and floor joists fit into pockets mortised into the ceiling and floor beams in each of the building’s five timber bents. As originally built, the structure featured pine wainscoting grained to resemble oak around its complete interior, including on the low center partition, along with a pulpit platform at the front of the

1850-1913 floorplan

Floorplan of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church from 1850-1913. Note the lack of a center aisle. (Little White School Museum collection)

main room. Pews were arranged with no center aisle, but instead with two aisles on either side of the room accessed by doors on either side of the front entrance vestibule. Pews on both sides of the room extended from the wall to the aisle, and then from the other side of the aisle to a low center partition.

When the structure was dismantled for the move to Oswego from wherever it previously stood, the interior tongue and groove flooring was removed, although apparently not all of it was salvageable. Likewise, the old wainscoting was removed and stockpiled, as were the floor and ceiling joists. Last, the timber frame was taken apart, and the pieces moved to the Oswego site. Since the length and design of the floor and ceiling joists were identical, the pieces were interchangeable, and were taken off the pile to install without regard to whether they’d been floor or ceiling joists in their previous lives. Apparently, only enough tongue and groove flooring was available to piece together the floorboards on one side of the room, with new flooring probably bought from the Parker or other local sawmilling operation.

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

This August 1912 photo of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church by Dwight Smith Young shows off the new concrete front porch and stairs that would cause restorers so much trouble 66 years later. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church served its congregation well, undergoing periodic renovations and maintenance. In 1901, the building got a major facelift. More ornate interior trim was added and the 32 glass panes in the building’s 16 double-hung windows was replaced by diamond-patterned glue-chipped panes that were a sort of poor man’s stained glass. In addition to the other upgrades, a bell tower and bell were also added to the building, with all the improvements financed thanks to donations from Tirzah Minard, widow of one of the church’s early ministers, Henry Minard.

But by that first decade of the 20th Century, the congregation was in near-constant financial trouble. So when the congregation dissolved in 1913 it wasn’t much of a shock to the community.

1919 LWS exterior 1919 crop

The “Little School” in its tri-color paint scheme in this 1919 photograph by Fred Holzhueter. (Little White School Museum collection)

The building sat vacant for a couple years, and then in 1915, the Oswego School District found itself in need to additional classroom space for primary-aged students. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on Sept. 1, 1915 that “The Methodist church room will be used by the Oswego school, as one of their rooms this winter. It is being cleared and fitted for the work of education, non-sectarian.”

That fall, the pews and the center partition were removed revealing the floor that had been installed when the building had been erected on the Oswego site. It must have been interesting walking or sitting in desks since the boards did not span even half of the room. Instead, one length of floorboards extended from the wall to the edge of the aisle

1915-1930

The Little School’s floorplan from 1915 to 1930 with toilet rooms created by partitioning the vestibule. (Little White School Museum collection)

on each side of the room. A second set floored the aisles on either side of the room, and a third set floored the area under the pews from the aisles to the center partition. Although it didn’t matter much at the time, the newer floorboards on the building’s south side were about 3/8” thinner than the original boards on the north side.

In addition, the front vestibule was given two partitions to create two toilets, one on either side, one for girls and one for boys. With the two former vestibule doors no longer accessible, a new door was cut through the east wall of the vestibule to create access to the classroom. Sinks were also installed along the north and south walls on either side of the vestibule, and coat hooks were screwed into the wainscoting.

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

This 1919 postcard view is the only known interior photograph of the Little School before the 1930s. There are no known interior shots of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. Note the sink and coats on hooks in the back corner of the room. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dubbed “the Little School” to differentiate it from the larger nearby brick Oswego Community School, it was originally used as a one-room building for grades 1-3. About 1920, a new floor was laid over the original tongue and groove flooring, making the room much easier to use. Shims were used to fill the 3/8” space caused by the thinner floorboards on the south side of the room.

In 1930, the room was divided into two classrooms and the ceiling was dropped by four feet in each room. The windows remained untouched, however, so that now the upper sashes extended above the ceilings in the two rooms. Also, a new, larger vestibule was created around the entranceway. The bathrooms—this time with flush toilets—were moved to smaller rooms partitioned off of the new vestibule on either side of the entrance. The old, smaller, vestibule was retained for the time being, with the old toilet rooms remodeled into boys’ and girls’ closets.

1930-34

The Little School’s floorplan from 1930-34 with two classrooms, a larger vestibule/hall and restrooms moved to the front corners of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

When the students arrived for school that fall, they discovered a new teacher had been hired. Virginia Crossman roomed with the Morse family, along with another young teacher, Rachel Winebrenner, who taught fifth and sixth grade. Eventually, the two educators married local farmers, Crossman becoming Mrs. Pete Campbell and Winebrenner becoming Mrs. Bill Anderson. Crossman taught third grade and half of second in her room, while veteran teacher Isabel Rubel again taught first and half of second grade.

In 1934, making use of Federal Civil Works Administration funding, the Oswego School District had the Little School jacked up and had a basement dug beneath it. The job almost came to a disastrous end when the front of the building began slipping off the jacks. But fast work by local contractor Irvin Haines and his crew saved the day—and the building. But the lasting result was that the front of the building bows out by almost two inches.

1934-83

With a basement dug beneath the building in 1934, the restrooms were moved downstairs, stairwells replacing the old first floor restrooms in the building’s front corners. (Little White School Museum collection)

Inside, the old vestibule was completely removed and the bathrooms that had been added in 1930 were turned into stairwells to the basement where boys’ and girls’ restrooms were located.

Then two years later, this time using Works Progress Administration funds, a third classroom, measuring 36 x 30 feet was built on the east side of the Little School, along with a new main entrance hall and basement access stairway. In addition, the entire building received new wood shingle siding and a new coat of paint that picked out the window trim.

1948 abt exterior sepia

By 1948, the building had received it’s iconic coat of white paint and had become known as the Little White School. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1940s, the building had received its coat of white paint, and became known as the Little White School to a few more generations of students, including its last use as junior high classroom space in the middle of the Oswego School District’s first major enrollment growth spurt. When the new Oswego High School on Ill. Route 71 opened in the fall of 1964, and the old high school at Franklin and Washington was repurposed and renamed Oswego Junior High School. The Little White School, already in bad repair, was closed to students for the last time and the district pondered what to do with it. For several years it was used as school district storage space. But by the mid-1970s, school district officials were seeing the building as not only a community eyesore, but also obsolete for any conceivable use for them.

When word got around the community that the district was entertaining serious thoughts of demolishing the historic old structure, community residents came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to see another landmark razed.

To be continued…

 

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Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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Filed under Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

It took government, civic cooperation to build the first hard road system

Saw an interesting factoid the other day. Bucking the Republican Party’s fixation on cutting everything government does, the new Democratic governor of West Virginia has decided to make a strong push to sell bonds to upgrade the Mountain State’s roads and bridges.

As he lays the groundwork to get an increase in the state’s gasoline tax passed to retire the bonds he plans to sell to finance the program, he bucked another modern right wing idea—facts are only for elitists—and actually had a study done on the costs to the state’s drivers of the current, poorly maintained system. According to the study, done by TRIP, a Washington, D.C. based national transportation study group, poor roads in West Virginia cost each of the state’s drivers $1,357 a year in vehicle repair and maintenance, traffic accidents where poor road design and/or maintenance is a factor, and lost time and additional fuel use due to traffic congestion. That comes to more than $1.4 billion a year in additional costs for West Virginia drivers.

And the sad news is that with the right wing fixation on cutting taxes at all levels and not spending on even vital services, we’re gradually working our way back to where roads were more than a century ago.

For instance, Illinois’ early road system was a serious drag on its economy. Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of automobiles and, as they were called at the time, auto trucks were filling roads, the system was at the breaking point.

View from Poverty Point Oct 27, 1912 Photo: Dwight S. Young

Dwight Young snapped this photo near his home, Poverty Point, on what is now U.S. Route 34 just west of the Oswego Bridge on Oct 27, 1912. The road was paved with concrete in 1924. (Little White School Museum photo)

The township financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated areas—road mileage might be the same in rural areas as in heavily populated townships, but more urban taxpayers were helping share the burden.

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. And as soon as the state got involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was efficiency: It was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces and their performance monitored, averaging nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if motorists could save so much gasoline, state officials figured they might agree that part of that savings could be used to build the better roads. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half of them over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, on hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. After the calculations were complete, auto taxes were calculated not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

An interesting historical aside: That 23-cent a gallon gas  back in 1911 sounds cheap but it is equivalent to $5.64 a gallon in 2017 dollars.

With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), a statewide organization was formed to lobby and draw up specifications for hard roads.

1911-abt-washington-at-main

In the first decade and a half of the 20th Century, the transition from horse-drawn to motorized vehicles was well underway, as this photo of Washington Street in Oswego illustrates. (Little White School Museum collection)

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new rural free delivery system, which became a notable government success story. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker who was active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

With the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, Edens helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, whose first convention was held in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission (hope has always sprung eternal in Illinoi), use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the whole system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that the idea of hard roads had entirely clear sailing, of course. In particular, township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Farmers also protested about the cost and wondered whether better roads would even benefit them. But skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, finally tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed the Illinois General Assembly with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a Kendall County Superintendent of Highways. The county board appointed John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, to the position. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

1916-abt-rt-25-at-bh

In 1915, a demonstration stretch of concrete pavement 15-feet wide was built from Aurora to the Waubonsie Creek bridge in Oswego, one of the first all-weather hard roads in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hard road plans drawn up

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan for a state system of paved highways.

For instance, a stretch of 15-foot wide concrete pavement snaked along the Fox River from Aurora south to Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another shorter stretch was poured from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated demonstration stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

And when the final plan emerged, it turned out to be a classic bait and switch. In the end Kendall County didn’t have much to say about where the first trans-county concrete highway would be built. Nearly a century later later, we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of decisions on where the area’s major highways would be routed.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately got behind the good roads program begun by his predecessor, Gov. Edward F. Dunne.

“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden promised the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William Edens, then serving as president of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, to organize the statewide good roads campaign effort.

Unfortunately, just as pressure for good roads was reaching critical mass, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure was resoundingly approved by state voters. The vote here in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money, to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

Special interests awarded Kendall route change

In order to get enough votes statewide, the plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. During the referendum campaign, its route was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville where it would cross the Fox River and turn towards Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the same route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small replaced Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up locally. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street in Aurora and Montgomery, past Montgomery’s sheep yards, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy main line at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west on modern Route 34. To cope with angry Oswego and Yorkville residents, paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in in the two communities.

1924-abt-31-34-road-constr

In 1924, despite the controversy over its route, Route 18 (today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34), was built connecting Aurora with Sandwich. Above, crews pour concrete on the stretch of road at the west end of the Oswego Bridge. (Little White School Museum photo)

The route, the Kendall County Record fumed in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use the two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB&Q mainline at the Wormley crossing was required.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago that favored a direct route to Princeton rather than one that passed through local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May of that year, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete had been laid to the county line at Sandwich and was curing.

1936-eje-rt-34-overpass

In 1936, the final, short stretch of concrete linking Naperville with Oswego was laid, including the bridge over the EJ&E tracks just east of the modern intersection of U.S. Routes 34 and 30, as well as the Route 34-30 interchange. Above, construction on the bridge is largely finished, and work on the approaches is ready to begin. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the old demonstration concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the new Route 18 spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July 1924 a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek to carry the new hard road section connecting with the 1914-era road that stopped at the north bank of the creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.

The section of modern Route 34—originally called Route 65 by the state—from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start on that stretch until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, that section was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway (today’s U.S. Route 30), and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the EJ&E tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads. Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.

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Marking change in Kendall County during African American History Month

One Monday night in May 2004, when I was still covering the Oswego School District Board for the Ledger-Sentinel, I sat at the press table during the board meeting, resigned to listen to yet another staff presentation, this one on the program—English Language Learners—designed to help students who live in homes where English is not the first language spoken.

What really got my attention during the teachers’ presentation was the revelation that more than 50 different languages were being spoken in homes throughout the school district. If a more dramatic example was needed that Oswegoans were no longer living in the relatively isolated small farming town of my youth, this was certainly it. Nowadays, I’ve found by a bit of digging, fewer non-English languages are being spoken at homes throughout the school district, but the number is still more than 30.

Times in our little corner of the Midwest had actually begun changing many years before 2004, of course. By even the 1970s Kendall County had gone a long way past the era—which extended as late as the 1950s—when Kendall County residential developers added covenants prohibiting blacks and Jews, and sometimes Catholics, from buying homes they were building. And the era of the official and unofficial “sunset laws” that prohibited blacks from being in area towns after the sun set had also been as quietly discarded by that time as they had been instituted in the first place.

The interesting thing to me, as I grew up in and then made my home in Kendall County— and learned about the racism that was downplayed so effectively in our history classes—was not the casual racism that existed virtually everywhere; I expected that. Rather it was that the county, almost from the time of its earliest permanent setters, was home to varying numbers of minority residents who were, for the most part, accepted on their own merits by their white neighbors.

Among the settlers who arrived in Kendall County in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray and Elias Dial, all of whom settled around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area of Fox Township on the county’s west border.

The party, unlike so many other pioneers of that era who hailed from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, had come directly from the South. Also unlike settlers from other regions, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 county history, the Rev. E.W. Hicks wrote that the families “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is unlikely either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when they arrived on the Illinois prairies. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. And with state government still heavily influenced by slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who enjoyed owning their fellow humans. The low regard their owners had for the two women brought here in 1834 is suggested by the failure to record their surnames—assuming they had been given them by their owners in the first place, of course.

1894-grove-school

Kendall County schools, even rural one-room schools, were integrated from the beginning. In December 1894, the students and teacher from the Grove School southeast of Oswego on Grove Road, posed for the camera creating an image you would not have seen in the states of the old Confederacy, or even in many big northern cities. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the tempestuous years leading up to the Civil War, the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Illinois’ own Black Laws made it difficult, if not downright dangerous, for free black people to live in Illinois. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the county’s black population stood at six persons, two each in Oswego and Kendall townships, and one each in Fox and Franklin (later renamed Seward) townships. The county’s 1860 census recorded a single black person living in Oswego Township. Whether those counts were accurate or not is one of history’s open questions.

After the Civil War, Kendall County’s population began a long, slow decline, with the county total declining by some 3,000 residents between 1860 and 1920. The reasons for this probably ranged from the lure of cheap land west of the Mississippi to the lingering psychological effects of the Civil War.

But strangely enough, while its overall population was declining immediately after the war, the county’s black population boomed. From the single black person officially counted in 1860, Kendall’s black population grew to the official county of 54 in 1870, with nearly half of them calling NaAuSay Township, bordering Oswego Township to the south, home.

Most of NaAuSay Township’s 22 black residents lived and worked on farms in the township’s northwest corner. Thomas Lewis and his wife, Lucinda; George Washington and his wife, Emma; Neuman Northcup and wife Lusan; and Alfred Lucas and his two nearly grown children were all residents of that neighborhood. According to the census records, the value of the individual farms in this small island of black culture in overwhelmingly white Kendall County was comparable to their white neighbors, as was the value of the personal property they owned.

1903-smith-ferdinand

The son and grandson of former slaves, Ferdinand Smith was the first black student to graduate from high school in Kendall County as a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903.

As the years wore on, however, the county’s black farmers slowly left the land to live in nearby towns where they found work off the farm. The family of Nathan Hughes is a good example of the trend. Hughes, a Civil War veteran, farmed in NaAuSay Township in the Minkler Road area after the Civil War. He married into the Lucas family, which already had roots in the township’s farming community, and his children subsequently married into the Smith family, which was living in Oswego. Hughes was a respected member of the community who was an officer in the Yorkville post of the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.

In 1903, Hughes’ grandson, Ferdinand Smith, became the first black student to graduate from a Kendall County high school. As the June 1, 1903 Kendall County Record reported: “”It was the first time a class contained a colored member; the Negroes were well represented in the audience and Uncle Nathan Hughes was there to see his grandson take this important step” Then in 1904, Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, became the first black female to graduate from a Kendall County high school, followed in 1907 by their sister, Frances. Many descendants of the Hughes and Smith families still live in the Fox Valley area.

Today, Kendall County’s African-American population is substantial, most having arrived as part of the housing boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the two slave women brought here from South Carolina in 1834, though, they’ve come to the Fox Valley voluntarily. And with any luck, like the members of the extended Hughes and Smith families, their descendants will value the roots they’ve put down here.

We’ve been lucky here in the Fox Valley in recent years that, probably thanks to careful management by our political leaders, we’ve been relatively free from the plague of official violence against people of color—at least outside of Chicago, where a major clean-up seems now finally underway. As the nation observes African American History Month, it will benefit everyone to take a look back and remember that we’ve all got a stake in the future of our country in general and Kendall County in particular–no matter what the color of our skin is.

 

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How the Post Office helped settle America

As the frontier of the new United States moved ever farther west, post offices, the post roads that served them, and the newspapers that were given preferential treatment by the post office made up the glue that held the new republic together.

When they were still scattered groups working their way towards the inevitable confrontation with Britain, the members of the Committees of Correspondence realized that reliable, secure communication—in those days that meant the mails was essential. The existing colonial mail system operated by the British government, was expensive and was definitely NOT secure, since it was common practice for post office personnel to open and read suspicious communications. Thus the conspirators established the Constitutional Post, North America’s first truly independent postal system.

mail-on-horseback

Carrying the mail on horseback, as it mostly was during the first decade of the nation’s existence, was expensive (one man on horseback could only carry so much mail) and dangerous for the mail carrier since the mails usually contained money.

When it came time to create a more perfect union with a new Constitution, the founders recognized that a safe, secure national postal system, open to all at the same price, was not only vital to the new country’s growth, but was required if the representative democracy they’d invented was to function properly.

Starting with the first post office department under the Articles of Confederation headed by Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock, for which postmasters were supplied a special key. Anyone without a key could not, by definition, be a postmaster because they could neither accept nor send mail via the official portmanteau.e

The term “mail,” in fact had always referred to the bag in which communications were carried, since it was a derivation of the French word “male,” meaning sack or bag.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was considered part of the official mail to be carried in the portmanteau and what would not be so considered.

With the Constitution approved and in effect, Congress tried to settle the debate over the official carriage of the mails with passage of the Post Office Act of 1792. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory that included the modern states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Among the act’s most important provisions were:

¶ Codifying Congress’s power to establish post offices and post routes in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution. Previously, the Post Office Department established post routes. Congress’s involvement assured the number of post offices would quickly expand due to constituent pressure, even on the lightly settled frontier;

¶ Forbidding government inspection of the mails. In Europe, the mails were routinely intercepted and inspected by the government. With the assurance of privacy for all users, from the government itself to individuals and businesses, were able to use the mails confidently;

¶ Establishing the basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies. By the 1830s, the stage companies, due to their reliance on mail contracts for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their revenues, were virtually quasi public arms of the federal government; and

¶ Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau—meaning their delivery was often hit or miss at the whim of the stagecoach drivers or horseback mail carriers. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.

Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois and the rest of the Old Northwest.

And then, two years after the War of 1812 began, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery system. Among its provisions, the law mandated extending mail service to all county courthouses. Included in the law were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was guaranteed to receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county and its seat were.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

By the 1820s, roads in the old 13 Colonies had been sufficiently improved to permit the use of stagecoaches built in Troy, N.Y. and Concord, N.H. Eventually, the Concord Coach became the stage industry’s standard vehicle, although companies also used a variety of other wagons and carts as well.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of other innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system.

McLean was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system invented by Joseph Habersham, a former Georgia merchant who was John Adams’ postmaster general. Habersham’s system, introduced in 1800, made every post office in the nation into either a hub or a spoke.

The system relied on central distribution offices—the hubs—which supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices that comprised the spokes of the system.

McLean also perfected the system under which the post office department controlled the mails at individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mail from office to office. To move the mail during early days of the republic, that meant brave men on horseback willing to fight off wild animals, thieves (no credit cards or money orders in those days, cash only), and angry Indians. Eventually, as roads were improved, companies were established that moved the mail with wagons and then coaches by stages, broken up by stops where teams could be changed, mail exchanged, and passengers fed and rested. And thus the derivation of “stagecoach.”

By 1828, McLean’s network of private stagecoach contractors was in place and working very well, although he frequently and bitterly complained about stage company owners cheating on their contracts. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract bid was required to sell its coaches, horses, and other assets to the successful bidder.

When the Post Office Act of 1792 was passed, most mail in the former colonies was carried by horseback because of the near total lack of even rudimentary roads. State governments jealously guarded their rights to build and maintain roads, resisting every effort of the Federal Government to lend a financial hand, an attitude that nearly drove President George Washington (a huge post office supporter) to distraction. So to get around the states’ resistance, instead of creating roads, Congress created post routes. And as those post routes were established, their citizens demanded state and local governments improve their road systems, because people wanted their mail on time.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, whose mail was delivered via the Great Lakes. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon went into service between the two towns, followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

Ottawa, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was granted its post office in 1832, with mail arriving from Peoria either overland or up the Illinois River by steamboat. Communities in Kendall County, through which two of the three major Chicago to Ottawa trails ran, received mail from both the Ottawa and Chicago hubs.

Our small county of Kendall got its first post office at Holderman’s Grove on the Chicago to Ottawa Road in April 1834, with other offices springing up in 1837 at the villages of Little Rock, Oswego, and Newark.

With the establishment of post offices, the county’s new settlers could correspond with the folks back east and could also make sure they were informed citizens thanks to the newspapers carried in the official mail.

Today, the post office still provides a vital, dependable, secure link to every community in the country, even as it tries to survive attacks by those whose goal it is to transfer government services, and our tax dollars, to private companies.

 

 

 

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