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Once you could get it all at Sears…

Back in 1992, just as the world was on the cusp of the Internet revolution, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced the elimination of their “Big Book” catalog as a cost saving measure. It was a decision that perfectly illustrated the shortsightedness of big business.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

Not only did they leave the business of selling everything to everyone just as the Internet was giving that particular business model new life, but also, with that announcement, a living link to the nation’s past died.

The Sears catalog was a godsend to farm families and pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether they lived on the desolate plains of Nebraska and Kansas or in the prosperous farming communities of Illinois and Indiana, rural families could buy just about anything else rural life required from the Sears catalog.

Gradually, the breadth of items included in the catalog was trimmed, and special catalogs were introduced. For instance, the Farm and Ranch catalog of 1992 included a lot of stuff that used to be included in the Big Book.

Financial analysts complained the Big Book had no focus. Unlike L.L. Bean (clothes) or Cabella’s (sporting goods), the Big Book offered a bit of everything for almost everyone. And that breadth of offerings apparently made the bean counters nervous.

Of course there was no ‘focus!’ The Big Book was the place you looked when you couldn’t find something anywhere else. Need a water heater? How about home nursing equipment? Need a swing set or bikes for the kids (or yourself)? Swimming pool? Auto parts? Furnace? The Big Book had it all and then some.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

In the fall of 1900, Sears published such a wildly comprehensive selection that many of the items are prohibited by law these days. For instance, in the drug section, Sears promised to cure—not just treat—morphine and opium addiction (there were apparently quite a few folks who couldn’t “Just Say No” 116 years ago, either), asthma (called catarrh back then), alcoholism (“Our 50 Cent Liquor Habit Cure”), Dr. Echols’ Australian cure for heart trouble, and my favorite, their all-purpose “60-Cent Nerve and Brain Pills” which were guaranteed to cure you if you felt “generally miserable.”

What great stuff! Today, the Food and Drug Administration or some other such wet blanket would rule the medicines (1) had no curative values at all, and (2) they would probably cause more problems than they would help. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy something that guaranteed a cure, even if you just felt “generally miserable? ”

You could buy (young freckled ladies, please note) “Lily White Face Wash” for 40 cents. And you could not only buy watches of all prices, but you could buy an amazing 166 watchmaking tools in case you wanted to build one yourself.

There were rings, and silverware, and excellent clocks of all shapes and sizes.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

And guns. Boy, could you buy guns in 1900. There were lever-action Winchesters like the Rifleman used on TV, fine L.C. Smith double barreled shotguns, and three pages of handguns, ranging from .22 to .38 caliber. Our modern fascination with military-style weapons is nothing new—the catalog included a Harrington and Richardson “Automatic Bayonet Revolver,” which was included that year, the copywriter explained, because of the “many inquiries for a bayonet revolver” the company had received.

You could buy handcuffs or a beekeeper’s hat and net and smoker or fishing equipment, or a complete darkroom and camera outfit. And for just $54, you could purchase a complete stereopticon magic lantern show on the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, there were the clothes. Oh, the outerwear was popular (in fact, it’s amazing how much a man’s suit from 1900 looks like one from the 1960s Beatle era), but it’s no secret that the boys of that day and age used the Sears catalog to find out just what women looked like under all those clothes they wore. There on page 572 are a bevy of fetching young women dressed in (gasp!) tight- fitting Union suits! And on page 682 is the ever-popular display of summer corsets.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

There were chests of tools, tombstones, iceboxes, cast iron stoves, horsedrawn carriages and harnesses—you name it.

In fact, Sears became the world’s largest retailer not by having a ‘focus’ but by offering things people needed and wanted—strangely enough, Sears’ focus was their customers. What a concept! And the ad copy was cleverly written to make sure everyone ended up wanting something.

By the last winter it was published, the Big Book had grown to 1,640 pages from 1900’s 1,120 pages and a Yuppy lady on the front of 1992’s fall-winter Big Book replaced the stylized barefoot lady with flowing robes on the 1900 book. But the 1992 Big Book still contained an awesome collection of clothing, appliances, tools, and just plain neat stuff.

The “New Home Cabinet Organ” of 1900 had given way to 1992’s electronic keyboards and “The Optigraph or Moving Picture Machine” had made way for the video camera. But the bicycles were still there (starting on page 1444), as were the women’s corsets (called “Support Garments” in 1992 and starting on page 205), although young fellows can see a lot more skin nowadays on daytime soap operas than in Big Book ad copy.

The company, I believe, began its slow decline when the accountants took control of the business from salesmen. After all, Richard Warren Sears started out in 1886 by selling watches no one else wanted, while Alvah Curtis Roebuck began by repairing watches for Sears. By 1891, the pair were publishing a catalog (with all the ad copy written by Sears) and by 1894, Sears and Roebuck had become the nation’s shopkeeper. Their success was driven both by the sales genius of Sears, helped along by the U.S. Government’s institution of Rural Free Delivery. With the introduction of RFD, mail orders were delivered right to the mailbox out in front of every farmhouse in America instead of to the post office where customers had to go pick them up. It’s an eerily similar situation to the success on-line retailers like Amazon have realized making use of the Internet, another government developed and encouraged communications innovation.

R.W. Sears made millions not by watching the bottom line, but by giving people what they wanted or what they thought they wanted. With the guys from the business end now in charge, Sears has been in financial trouble for years. The company’s destructive corporate culture has already nearly eliminated Kmart as a viable company and seems well on its way to destroying R.W. Sears’ brainchild.



Filed under Business, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

The time Oswego’s mayor went on the lam…

See update…

Kendall County used to be a pretty peaceful place. It was, for most of the time since it was established in 1841, a small farming community dotted with a few unincorporated hamlets as well as four incorporated municipalities.

Since Chicago’s populated hinterland reached out to snare the county, driven by the post-World War II population explosion and the huge government veterans’ programs that paid for everything from brand new houses to brand new college degrees, the county’s population growth surged. Now, while the majority of the county is still agricultural, only about 1 percent of the population is engaged in farming. So that’s changed considerably from the 1950s when I was growing up.

Even so, crime is still pretty rare, especially on a per capita basis, with most of it safely classed as petty crime, although we’ve had a few murders over the years, starting with the first one in 1843, just a couple years after the county’s formation.

Abner Updike in happier days in 1884 at the age of 16.

Abner Updike in happier days in 1884 at the age of 16.

But on the whole, crime was, at one time, fairly rare, both in the private and public sectors. Granted, some years ago, the Oswego Village Treasurer managed to siphon off around $100,000, for which she was made a guest of the state for a while, and the Bristol Township Supervisor found better use for about three times as much of the public purse as did Oswego’s treasurer, but being a Republican and connected, he didn’t serve any time at all.

But probably the most spectacular failure of an elected public official in the county happened in 1907. Back then, the Village of Oswego really didn’t have much money to spend. The bulk of its income, about $1,400 a year, came from two saloon licenses sold annually, municipal property and sales taxes having not yet become innovations.

In 1907, a fairly severe, although relatively brief, financial panic struck the country. As banks failed right and left, Oswego resident and newly elected mayor Abner Updike seems to have been caught in a financial squeeze.

Updike was a popular guy, involved in all sorts of activities in and around Oswego. His family was a prosperous one who owned a profitable farm out in the Wolf’s Crossing area. He married well, taking as a wife one of the likewise prosperous Armour family.

Abner Updike, center, with the Oswego Pirates community baseball team about 1900.

Abner Updike, center, with the Oswego Pirates community baseball team about 1900.

Updike was active in the community, serving as the manager of the East Oswego Pirates, the community baseball team. While farming, Updike was popular enough to be elected timekeeper of the Harvey Threshing Ring, a cooperative started by neighboring farmers to buy and operate a steam-powered threshing machine. In 1900, he was one of the successful promoters of acquiring a post office for Wolf’s Crossing, which was an economic boost for the tiny farming hamlet. He was also an agent for the well-known draft horse breeding firm of Dunham, Fletcher & Coleman of Wayne, Ill.

But clouds had been gathering on Updike’s horizon for some years, although few, including his own family, realized what a deep financial hole he was digging for himself. In an era when farming was a full-time job (which it definitely is not for most farmers today), Updike held down a number of off the farm jobs, including working at Ryburn, Wolf & Parker’s Aurora hardware store and hauling milk from Wolf’s Crossing area farms to the Palace Car Creamery in Aurora.

Map of a portion of east Oswego Township, 1903, with the Rink, formerly the Updike, farm highlighted.

Map of a portion of east Oswego Township, 1903, with the Rink, formerly the Updike, farm highlighted.

And then, unbeknownst to most, he lost the Updike family farm. His brother-in-law, Henry Rink, bought the farm and saved Updike from bankruptcy.

After moving into town in February of 1902, he was almost immediately touted as a candidate for village president. A staunch Republican, he had been a firm backer of Theodore Roosevelt and was active in state and local Republican politics.

Updike joined a syndicate that bought the old Walter Loucks farm in Oswego and which became what amounted to one of Oswego’s first subdivisions. Called the Park Addition, because it was to include Oswego’s first park, the developers successfully advocated that municipal water service and concrete sidewalks to be extended there. Updike, in fact, built one of the first homes in the Park Addition, on what was described as the highest spot in the village.

In 1904 he was elected Oswego Village President. That same year, he also became a business partner, with Lew Gaylord, in the hardware and harness firm of Updike & Gaylord.

And he also apparently heavily speculated in land. Updike was an enthusiastic promoter of land in the Canadian province of Alberta. In 1904, he organized and accompanied more than one trip up into Alberta where he encouraged well-off local farmers and businessmen to buy land. In addition, he and his business partner, Lew Gaylord, speculated in land in Missouri. In 1907 and early 1907, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Updike was making a flurry of trips to Canada and South Dakota to promote land deals. He was also spending more and more time taking business trips to Chicago on the interurban trolley.

Then came the Panic of 1907 and Updike’s financial house began to teeter. The partnership of Gaylord & Updike sold their hardware business in April 1907, and started engaging in land speculation in Missouri, among other places.

On May 8, 1907, the Kendall County Record reported that:

“Mayor Updike left Oswego Friday night for another trip to Hannibal, Mo., where he has a big land deal under way. He had returned a few days previous from Missouri with his former partner, Lew Gaylord, the two having been away for a week or two.”

Apparently, the Missouri deal didn’t go as hoped. On Oct. 9, the Record reported that Updike was selling his elegant new house in the Park Addition. A week later, a news bombshell hit Oswego when a double deck Oct. 16 Record headline announced:

Abner Updike Leaves Home Mysteriously

According to the story:

“The village of Oswego is the center of interest in one of the most talked-of disappearances that has occurred in Kendall county for many years, owing to the departure last week of Abner Updike, mayor of the town, president of the Citizens’ Club, former president of the Kendall County Fair Association, and at one time a prospective candidate for sheriff of Kendall County, leaving an excellent family–a wife and eight children ranging from nine months to 18 years of age.”

According to the story, Updike and joined his teenaged daughter for an interurban trip, his daughter getting off in downtown Aurora to do errands, but Updike, telling her he was going on to conduct business in Chicago for a few hours, took the interurban from downtown Aurora to the city. He promised her he would join her on his return and the two would then head back to Oswego. But Updike never returned.

Although he wrote a letter to his wife informing her he had left and would never return was postmarked Chicago, it appeared he had then fled to El Paso, Texas. There, Sugar Grove resident Robert Findley, a long-time friend of Updike, reported meeting him on the street. Not having heard abut Updike’s scamper, Findlay loaned him $15—which, by the way, he never recovered. To top it off, Updike’s farewell letter to his wife explaining he had fled was marked postage-due, forcing her to pay to receive it.

After Updike left, the full extent of his financial woes finally became public. As the Record reported on Oct. 23:

“It is astonishing to note the number of creditors of Mr. Updike in Oswego and Aurora. Great amounts of money have been loaned to him and there seems to be little chance of ever getting any of it back. Some of the most prominent men of the village and farmers of the township were taken in on the grand haul, and after his departure found themselves the sole owner of a worthless note.”

Updike never returned to Oswego, although he did come back to Illinois, at least for a while. His wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Armour Updike, left in debt and with no means of support, departed Oswego and moved to Elgin, where at some point prior to 1910, Abner rejoined her. His occupation on the 1910 U.S. Census for Elgin was listed as a traveling salesman for a cigar company.

Eventually, however, Abner apparently left again, and his wife, apparently no shrinking violet, packed up seven of her children in a car and headed north to Canada, where she settled them in the small prairie farming community of Lockwood, Saskatchewan, Canada. There, she went to work as the local telephone operator, and raised all the children who had accompanied her. She died in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1946. Her descendants live in Saskatchewan to this day.

Update: Didn’t mean to slight the descendants of Abner and Lizzie through their daughter, Alice, who stayed behind in Illinois when Lizzie took the rest of the couple’s children to Canada. Those family members are still living throughout the Fox Valley area, along with other branches of the Updike family.


Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History

After 180 years, the roads from Chicago to Ottawa still drive growth

Just 180 years ago this week, transportation history was made when the first stagecoach drove west out of Chicago on its way to Ottawa, the sometimes head of navigation on the Illinois River.

From its earliest days, Chicago owed its wealth—in fact, its very existence—to transportation. The Lake Michigan water highway, plunging deep into the interior of North America, brought the earliest French explorers to the Chicago portage. Throughout the colonial and pioneer era, the lake acted as a north-south superhighway for traders, soldiers, and settlers.

But while Lake Michigan penetrated deeply into what would one day become the Midwest, there was no direct link from the lake to the vital Mississippi-Ohio river system. The sluggish Chicago River emptied into the lake amid marshes and sand dunes, but it did not, except during floods, connect with any of the south-flowing rivers in the area. Instead, the earliest travelers paddled their canoes up the Chicago River to the overland portage to the Des Plaines River. From there, the route flowed south to the confluence with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River forms and then down to the Mississippi.

While that route was passable—for most of the year—for canoes and small boats, it was totally unsuitable unusable for steamboats. Instead, the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River during periods of high water was Ottawa. During the rest of the year when the river was shallower, Peru was as far as the steamboats of the 1820s and 1830s could get.

Because of this gap in water transportation from the lake to the Illinois, the road from Chicago to Ottawa was a major economic engine driving development, both in Chicago and its hinterland throughout northern Illinois.

The branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail known as the High Prairie Trail was probably first used by the region’s Native American inhabitants. While the Indians’ permanent villages were located along the Fox River and other area streams, winter family hunting camps were scattered along the banks of the Illinois River. It’s likely the trail from the lakeshore at Chicago to Ottawa was forged by these groups as they made their fall trips to the Illinois and spring journeys back to the Fox, DuPage, and DesPlaines rivers.

In the late 1820s when white settlement began in earnest in northern Illinois, the overland route from Chicago on the lake to Ottawa became economically significant. Goods were sent by steamboat up the Illinois and offloaded at either Peru or Ottawa for overland shipment to Chicago. In return, the growing variety of goods, ranging from timber cut and milled in Wisconsin and Michigan forests to grain and livestock grown by farmers in Chicago’s outlying area was shipped back south to be transported down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago-Ottawa trails

The two branches of the road from Chicago to Ottawa were the High Prairie Trail that passed through Plainfield, Plattville, and Lisbon and the road’s western branch that linked Naperville, Oswego and Newark as the road headed southwest.

As it evolved, the trail from Chicago to Ottawa consisted of three main branches, the eastern, central, and western. Two of the three—the western and central branches—passed through Kendall County. The eastern branch followed the course of the DesPlaines-Illinois River, looping about 10 miles east of Kendall County’s borders.

The central branch, called the High Prairie Trail, was the most heavily traveled. The northern stretch of the High Prairie Trail was established in 1831 by the Cook County Board during the county’s first year of existence. Cook originally included all of today’s Cook and DuPage counties, plus most of Will. The county road paralleled and sometimes directly followed today’s Odgen Avenue (U.S. Route 34) from downtown Chicago to Bernard Lawton’s inn and tavern at the DesPlaines River ford (at today’s Riverside), and from there in an almost direct route southwest to Walker’s Grove (today’s Plainfield) at the DuPage River ford. From there, the road followed a series of moraine ridges across the prairie into LaSalle County (then including all of LaSalle, Kendall, and Grundy counties, plus all the land north of there to the Wisconsin border) where it ran southwesterly through what would one day be Plattville and Lisbon to the tiny Holderman’s Grove settlement and then on to Ottawa.

For the first two years of the official route’s existence, there was only the occasional traveler on the road to stop at Abraham Holderman’s tiny inn at the southern tip of Big Grove. But in 1833, things began to pick up. That year, Dr. John Taylor Temple was granted the U.S. Post Office’s contract to carry mail from Chicago on the High Prairie Trail via Plainfield and Holderman’s to Ottawa, where it would be sent by steamboat to St. Louis. Meanwhile, mail that had come north by riverboat would be carried northeast up to the port of Chicago.

Temple’s first coach clattered out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, with an ambitious young lawyer, John Dean Caton, at the reins.

Moving buildings from houses to taverns was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

Moving buildings,from houses to taverns, was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

News that Temple’s new stage line would start carrying mail and passengers spread quickly. Traveling the new road from Chicago southwest in 1833, Daniel Platt of New York (his family had established Plattsburg) arrived in what would one day become Kendall County and established an inn at Plattville, while Levi Hills and family, more New Yorkers, arrived and bought Holderman’s inn. A year later, Hills hitched up several yokes of oxen and using logs as rollers moved the log tavern out of its grove out onto the prairie to the site of what soon became the village of Lisbon, apparently to better serve stagecoach travelers.

The western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail used the same route as the High Prairie Trail until it crossed the Des Plaines at Lawton’s. From there, it headed to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement (modern Naperville) on the DuPage. From there, the road crossed the prairie to Oswego, where it turned south and followed the Fox River to Yorkville. From Yorkville, the road turned southwest down the Fox River to the hamlet of Pavilion and then to the Hollenbacks’ settlement at Newark before joining the High Prairie Trail just north of Ottawa.

Today, the western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail is still an economic engine for Kendall County. The U.S. Route 34 corridor—which follows almost the exact course of the historic old road—has spurred the growth of towns along its route due to its direct connection to Naperville and the rest of the collar counties.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Transportation

The visionary life of John Dean Caton

It was late in 1833, and Dr. John Taylor Temple was looking for somebody to drive his brand new stagecoach on its first trip down the new mail route from Chicago to Ottawa.

 Temple had a brand new Concord Coach shipped east west from Buffalo by Great Lakes steamer, and it was ready to go for its first run down the High Prairie Trail from Chicago on Lake Michigan to Ottawa on the Illinois River.

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

John Dean Caton, an ambitious young man who had only recently been admitted to the Illinois bar—and thus becoming the first lawyer in Chicago—volunteered to take the reins. Born to a Quaker family in Monroe County, N.Y. on March 19, 1812, Caton’s early life was difficult. At the age of 3 he lost his father, after which his mother then moved the family to her brother’s farm near Utica, N.Y. There he worked hard and apparently studied just as hard at school. When he was 16, money was somehow found to send him to the Utica Academy (academies were the era’s high schools), where he excelled, his teachers telling him a year later he was qualified to teach in the area’s one-room schools. Caton taught for a year and continued his studies (something that proved a life-long habit), this time concentrating on the law. The next year, he was accepted to read law at a Utica firm, and after two years decided he was ready to set out on his own, and looking towards the western frontier—Illinois.

In June 1833, Caton and his brother, William, arrived in Chicago, then a boisterous, muddy, disease-ridden hamlet growing by leaps and bounds along the banks of the Chicago River at the foot of Lake Michigan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Caton made the long trek south to Pekin, where Judge Stephen T. Logan examined him and licensed the young man to practice law in Illinois.

Caton wasted no time, renting a one-room office in Dr. Temple’s two-story frame building on Lake Street. He prosecuted Chicago’s first robbery case in July. On Dec. 4, 1833 he was elected Chicago village attorney.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

That same year, Temple, who apparently used his political connections to snag the all-important contract to deliver mail between Ottawa and Chicago, established John T. Temple & Company, the city’s first stagecoach company. To carry the company’s mail and passengers, ordered a new state-of-the-art stagecoach from the Abbott-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and by Jan. 1, 1834 Temple’s line was ready to roll.

Climbing up onto the driver’s seat, Caton, who learned to drive teams on his uncle’s farm, urged the horses on across the frozen Nine Mile Swamp and along the Barry Point Trail to Barney Laughton’s tavern at the DesPlaines River ford—and into history.

If his career had stalled at that point, he would still have been remembered by history. But Caton was only beginning a public life that would span decades of Illinois history. As Chicago boomed during the frenetic 1830s, Caton prospered. In 1835, he traveled back east to New Hartford, N.Y. where he married Laura A. Sherrill. The couple then headed back west to growing Chicago where they quickly had three children. In addition, Caton served a term as a Chicago’s alderman.

By 1838, Caton was exhausted, his heath had begun to suffer, and the devastating Panic of 1837 (we call them depressions these days) had seriously damaged his finances. Deciding on a change of scene and occupation, he and his wife purchased a few hundred acres of land in what would, in a few years, become Kendall County, adjacent to thousands of acres owned by her brother, Henry Sherrill, and by his brother and cousins. Caton farmed for a few years, and acquired more land, before reentering the law and deciding to join the state’s judiciary.

In 1842, Caton was appointed judge for the circuit that included Kendall County, and in that capacity presided over the county’s first murder trial in 1844 and at the first session of the circuit court after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845. Along with his work on the regular circuit, Caton also served on the Illinois Supreme Court starting in 1842. In 1848, he left the circuit and concentrated on his Supreme Court duties, including a number of terms as chief justice.

Then in 1849, he found something even more interesting than the law. Friends in Ottawa, where he had moved, asked him to help Henry O’ Riley of Rochester N.Y., who had contracted with those holding Samuel F.W. Morse‘s patents to extend telegraph lines from St. Louis into Illinois. So Caton helped establish the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, becoming one of its first directors.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton's Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton’s Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

Fascinated with the new technology but knowing little about it, Caton spent much of the next three years studying it and becoming a skilled telegrapher. And thanks to his legal acumen, the company weathered some rough financial patches. Applying his ingenuity to the new communications technology, he helped overcome a number of technical problems. For instance, he insisted the company use cedar poles that, while initially more expensive, were far more durable, sharply cutting maintenance costs.

His Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop in Ottawa, under the management of Robert Henning, became a technological leader in both telegraph instrument design and manufacture and in teaching telegraphy. In 1867, Caton sold all of his telegraphy interests to Western Union. His innovative instrument shop eventually became an ancestor of Western Electric, later Lucent Technologies.

Caton's 1881 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

Caton’s 1877 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

A wealthy man by the late 1860s, Caton pivoted once again, plunging into the study of natural history while traveling the world, publishing several authoritative papers and books. Between 1868 and 1877, Caton frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin on observations on sexual behavior and characteristics of elk, deer, bison, and the habits of wild and domestic turkeys. Caton sent Darwin copies of papers he wrote on North American wildlife and Darwin reciprocated with his own work and comments. When Darwin’s sons visited the United States in 1871, he sent a letter of introduction with them to Caton. Caton sent Darwin a copy of his book The Antelope and Deer of America (1877), which Darwin warmly received.

In his busy retirement, Caton published books and papers on Hawaii, Norway, and on Illinois history before his death in Chicago on July 30, 1895. He never really forgot his local roots, either, and today Caton Farm Road in Kendall County and Caton Street in Ottawa are reminders of the life of this fascinating, visionary attorney, farmer, judge, businessman, historian, author, and scientist.


Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

Same old scam; brand new tech…

Matt Taibbi had another fascinating article in Rolling Stone this past month, this time concerning how the giant media conglomerate Thomson Reuters seems to have been helping some giant hedge funds and other powerful financial companies cheat by selling them economic survey data earlier than their regular customers.

According to a July 8 story in the Los Angeles Times, Tomson Reuters and the University of Michigan jointly conduct the Survey of Consumers, the results of which are publicly released twice a month at 10 a.m. However, they’ve also been selling access to the survey results to subscribers that allows them to access the data five minutes early. Further, however, and this is where it gets dicey for Tomson Reuters, they’ve been further selling access to a select band of 16 heavy financial hitters that arrives two seconds earlier than it does to their other paying customers.

Now, five minutes advanced notice doesn’t sound like much, and two seconds sounds like even less. However, in this day and age of computerized stock and bond trading, getting any jump at all on the competition concerning consumer confidence could mean billions in profits.

As CNN put it:

“In the milliseconds before the survey is released to other paying clients at 9:55 a.m. ET, trading volumes can soar up to 20 times their normal levels. By 9:54:59 a.m. ET, long after computers have acted on the number, volumes have already returned to normal.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was not amused, taking the sensible, though seemingly far from universal, position that:

“The securities markets should be a level playing field for all investors and the early release of market-moving survey data undermines fair play in the markets,”

Schneiderman threatened to sue; Tomson Reuters backed off and said they’d start releasing the data to all their subscribers at the same time; but now it appears the story was even worse than originally thought.

It’s a very big deal. Time will tell, however, whether any actual legal action will take place, especially given the general immunity from investigation and prosecution the financial sector enjoys these days.

The interesting historical aspect of this story, to me at least, is that something very similar was taking place back in the early 1800s, leading the U.S. Post Office to institute Express Mail delivery in an effort to level the economic playing field. And please note, this was decades before that publicity stunt called the Pony Express was a gleam in William Russell’s eye.

The U.S. Post Office's Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

The U.S. Post Office’s Express Mail service predated the iconic Pony Express by decades, and unlike the Pony Express, the Express Mail was operated by the government.

In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s than the Pony Express ever did. And interestingly enough for those of us in Illinois, one of the branches of the Express Mail connected Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill. on the National Road.

Express Mail differed from regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who hurried to make the best time possible. Unlike regular mail contractors, Express Mail contractors could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Express Mail service had been sporadically and temporarily established many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders, for instance, carried messages during the colonial period. After the Revolution, most expresses were part of the nation’s military communications network.

But the need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service finally became apparent in the spring of 1825. New York cotton merchants, learning that prices on the London market had skyrocketed, bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the price news. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news, making a hefty profit by buying low from uninformed sellers and selling high on the international market.

Postmaster General John McLean, vowing such a thing would never happen again, prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” and also established an Express Mail to follow the Great Mail route from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was forced to fire his Postmaster General, William T. Barry, ostensibly for corruption, but also for mismanagement. During his four years as the first cabinet-level head of the post office department, Barry had driven the financially healthy agency into bankruptcy.

In May 1835, enter Amos Kendall—our county’s namesake—who instituted a wide range of reforms. Kendall’s reforms, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal surpluses. Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service.

Regular mail was carried along the Great Mail route by the express at three times the normal postage. Newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news as quickly as possible.

President Jackson signed the bill creating the Express Mail in July 1836, and service began that autumn. Within a few weeks, another express was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala.

Then in 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed upon Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis, following the old National Road through the Illinois state capital at Vandalia.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, and each day thereafter, express riders quickly pushed their horses from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours. And that made a huge difference in the lives and economic circumstances of those living on what was then the western frontier.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. By then, thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major road improvements, the regular mail was nearly as fast as the express. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

It never ceases to amaze me the way we keep seeing aspects of history repeating themselves. With the recent story in Rolling Stone, we see that the predilections on the part of dishonest financial manipulators to cheat remains unabated, even in this modern computer age when two seconds advanced notice are apparently as valuable as a few days used to be 188 years ago.

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Filed under Illinois History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

When Sunday mail delivery was just fine…


The U.S. Postal Service has fallen on hard times–as predicted by anyone who realizes that government ‘privatization’ usually means the privatized services soon simply don’t work. Today’s post office is not a government agency; it’s supposedly a private sort of non-governmental agency that nonetheless needs the blessings of Congress to operate. That, right there, is a recipe for disaster, given our dysfunctional national legislature these days. But with the post office department, it has led to Congress requiring the agency to fund pensions of people who don’t even work for it yet, along with a bunch of other nonsense the post office has been burdened with for reasons best known to the folks in Washington.

The upshot is the postal service’s plan to stop Saturday mail deliveries in an effort, no matter how lame, to save money. When the plan goes into effect this coming August, it will be the second day removed from the mail delivery calendar. The post office, you see, used to deliver the mail on Sundays.

From the time the post office was established after the Revolutionary War, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, including those living in the small frontier towns like the ones that were springing up along the post roads in northern Illinois.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

When the coaches neared a post office, the drivers blew their long tin horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for everyone to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried. On most days, this rush to the post office—which was often located in a community’s general store, inn, or tavern—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. Problems arose, however, if the coach arrived on a Sunday. Then, ministers quickly saw the male halves of their congregations melt away as they rushed down to the post office to hear the latest news.

The discontent caused by the disruptions created by the arrival of the mails on Sundays resulted in the Sabbatarian movement.

In April 1810, Congress decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.

The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the members of that opposition became known as Sabbatarians. Not only did they want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. That threatened to have an impact on the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons. So, not surprisingly, the stagecoach companies were some of the most active in opposing the Sabbatarian movement.

Nonetheless, the Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next twenty years, with petition after petition, many created at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly, being dispatched to the post office department in Washington, D.C. demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.

But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement (one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish) had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own competing petition drives, helped even by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that felt Saturday was the true Sabbath. Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.

Not until 1841 were Sabbatarians able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants found electronic communication faster than the mails. It wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the campaign started—that the post office agreed to halt mail delivery and close all offices on Sunday.

Nowadays, the postal service is again planning to take a day out of their service week, but not for religious reasons. Unless you happen to think that modern determinations to destroy government agencies, one at a time, has something close to a religious intent behind it.

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Filed under Frustration, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Mailing it in…

So I’m working up a presentation for the good folks down at the Chapel on the Green down in Yorkville, and got enmeshed once again in the era when the mails were carried by stagecoach.

Here in northern Illinois, that started on Jan. 1, 1834, when a young lawyer named John D. Caton drove the first Concord coach southwest from Chicago to Ottawa, following the old Indian trace called the High Prairie Trail.

The coach, and the mail contract that made its journey possible, were both owned by a young, politically-connected physician named John Taylor Temple. Temple used his political connections to obtain the contract to carry the mail from Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Ottawa. Of course at that season of the year, the mails were carried much farther overland south down the bank of the Illinois River to Peoria.

This is a classic example of an Abbott-Downing Concord Coach manufactured in Condord, N.H. This example, from the Owl's Head Transportation Museum, Maine, was photographed by Bob at the Linwood Street blog. It's typical of the coaches that served communities all over northern Illinois in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.

This is a classic example of an Abbott-Downing Concord Coach manufactured in Concord, N.H. This example, from the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, Maine, was photographed by Bob at the Linwood Street blog. It’s typical of the stagecoaches that served communities all over northern Illinois in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.

Anyway, the concept of the mail itself is what has fascinated me for some time now. During that era, the mail was defined as matter carried inside the official portmanteau, which itself was a bulky carpet bag sort of thing with a lock that could only be opened by each postmaster’s special key. In fact, during that era, the key pretty much defined the postmaster himself—without the key, he wasn’t a postmaster.

That sounds sort of odd and iffy, but it actually kept the village of Montgomery from getting their own post office in the 1830s. Using subterfuge, officials in neighboring Aurora managed to somehow purloin the official key that was meant for Montgomery. With no key, the official portmanteau could not be opened, and as a result, Aurora got its post office in March of 1837. Montgomery wasn’t given a second chance at a post office until 1848.

In 1908, Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora.” One of the events at the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

So the official mail was matter carried inside the portmanteau from post office to post office. When the mail coach arrived, the portmanteau was carried inside the post office, the mail inside was sorted, with local matter separated and other matter added, the lock secured, the portmanteau loaded aboard the coach, and the driver, whipping up the team, rushed out of town to the next stop.

In between arriving and leaving, passengers got to stretch their legs and maybe even have a bite to eat, horses were changed, and local folks exchanged news and gossip with the driver. And, of course, there was the thrill of hearing the actual news for the first time. Newspapers were carried free from town to town so that news was spread up and down the stage routes. Local papers of the day had special columns for news from exchange papers, spreading news of interest. This was considered a vital governmental service, and the government considered it vital as well. The feeling at the time was that an informed electorate was an absolute necessity for democracy to work.

One of the interesting things about the stagecoach era for me is how thoroughly integrated federal governmental financing was embedded in the process. Without a mail contract, stage companies literally couldn’t exist since somewhere upwards of 30 percent of their revenue was provided in that way. And in fact, in the early 1840s, when a stage company lost their mail contract to a competitor, they were required to sell their rolling stock and livestock to the successful contractor.

Eventually, a web of roads spread west of Chicago, heading southwest to Ottawa and Peru at the head of steamboat navigation on the Illinois River and northwest to busy, growing Galena on the Mississippi. It was a vibrant, although relatively brief. Rails began to be pushed west of Chicago in the late 1840s, and by the 1850s stages were only operating on short routes connecting post offices not on a handy rail line. But while the stages ran, it was an exciting time in northern Illinois.



Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Transportation