One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.
That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.
For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.
Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.
Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.
Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.
The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.
Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.
Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.
A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.
What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.
Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.
There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.
The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.
Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.
Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.
The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”
McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.
Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.
The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.
The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.
The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.
Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.