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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, Part II

Part II in a two-part series in observation of National Historic Preservation Month…

In the autumn of 1964, Oswego’s Little White School was closed after serving as classroom space for the district’s students for the previous 49 years.

1958 LWS 1958

Oswego’s Little White School in 1958 in a photo taken by Homer Durrand for the Oswegorama community celebration. (Little White School collection)

The building started its life in Oswego as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, opening in 1850. For the next 63 years it served the community’s Methodists as a worship center and the rest of the community as public meeting space. Probably one of the more interesting non-religious events held in the building was the presentation of Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California. The spectacular presentation, which consisted of dozens of scenes of travel overland to California painted by artist James Wilkins, was mounted on canvas and then scrolled past the viewers, who were seated in chairs (or pews in the case of the Methodist-Episcopal Church) with live narration and music.

As Kendall County Courier Editor H.S. Humphrey put it in the May 23, 1855 issue: “Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California was exhibited last night at the Methodist Church to quite a respectable audience. It is a magnificent work of art…Persons wishing to make a journey across the plains can do it by visiting this Panorama, without the expenses and hardships attendant upon such an excursion.”

Nevertheless, the congregation was perennially short on money, and eventually dissolved in 1913. In 1915, the Oswego School District bought the building for classroom space for primary students. It served the community as both a school and public meeting space until the district closed it in 1964, afterwards using it for storage. When the district announced plans to sell the badly deteriorated building in the mid-1970s, a grassroots community effort was launched to save the building due to its direct linkage to Oswego’s rich heritage.

1970 LWS front cropped

Photo of Little White School taken by Daryl Gaar in July 1970 in preparation of a real estate appraisal report for the Oswego School District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which is where we rejoin the story with the formation of the Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976. After all the hoopla and excitement of the Bicentennial ended it was time for the OHA to get to work to save the building. Restoration began in 1977, just 40 years ago this summer. The project was to be completed under a unique agreement between the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building and grounds; the Oswegoland Park District, which pledged regular maintenance support; and the heritage association, which pledged to raise funds and oversee the building’s restoration.

Stabilization of the badly deteriorated structure was a vital first step. The first task was to tear the old roofs off and install a new one, a task accomplished with a combination of volunteer and paid labor, with funds raised by the heritage association. Next it was time to pull off the old wooden shingle siding, fill the nail holes, mask the windows, and paint the building.

A concrete porch and stairs had replaced the buildings original wooden front porch and stairs sometime around 1912, and over the years it sank, and as it did more concrete was added to level it out. It was determined the old concrete needed to go, and so it was demolished and removed. And that’s when it was discovered the front 11 x 11 inch solid oak sill had almost completely rotted away thanks to water flowing backwards on the concrete front porch and onto the sill during

1977 LWS Museum roofing 2

Getting a new roof on the Little White School Museum was the first order of business as restoration began in 1977. (Little White School Museum collection)

the previous 60 years. The result was the floor joists at the front of the building were no longer connected to the sill (which no longer existed at that location), but were being held up by the vestibule’s floorboards to which they were nailed—which is pretty much the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.

So carpentry wizard Stan Young replaced the rotted sill, and reproduced the wooden front porch using a 1901 postcard view of the building to draw his plans.

With the building painted, the front stairs replaced and a new roof installed, the last major exterior project was restoring the building’s bell tower. We’d discovered the church’s original bell was doing duty as Oswego High School’s victory bell, and so would be available—provided we could find a replacement victory bell. The good news was that the Oswego School District then, and probably now, too, doesn’t throw anything away, and it turned out they still had the bell recovered when the Red Brick School was demolished in 1965. All concerned agreed that would do just fine.

1980 Bell tower in place

The Little White School Museum’s restored bell tower after it was lowered in place by Garbe Iron Works’ mobile crane on Oct. 25, 1980. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Stan Young got to work, assisted by his sons, Glenn and Don, building a replica of the original bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School in the fall of 1980. By Oct. 25, the tower was completed, along with a timber support structure to hold the bell.

Thanks to Oswegoan Terry Peshia, the OHA got an in-kind donation of a mobile crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora that was used to hoist the church bell out of the high school’s courtyard and then replace it there with the Red Brick School bell.

With a crew ready to go at the museum, first the bell, now bolted to its support timbers, was hoisted up and set in place, where it fit neatly through holes in the roof Stan had already created, and into the original mortises in the building’s timber structure. Then the tower itself was swayed up and, despite a sudden gust of wind on that breezy cloudy autumn day, was lowered into place and secured.

Museum northwest before afterFor the next two years, Stan Young scrounged for copper materials from which he fabricated a finial to fit atop the tower, using that 1901 postcard photo of the building to recreate it to scale.

Meanwhile, the OHA Board of Directors had been holding spirited discussions about what to do with the rest of the building’s restoration. The exterior was going to look like the building did after the 1901 addition of the bell and tower, with the exception that the 1934 classroom would be retained. But what to do with the interior?

The first decision was to renovate—not restore—the third classroom and the 1936 hallway into a modern entry and museum room. The rooms were gutted, which wasn’t hard because the water damage from the bad roof was causing the plaster and plaster board to fall down anyway. The windows along the south wall were all removed, and the three windows along the north side of the room were replaced with sashes with UV-filtering glass. Then the museum room and hallway were completely rewired, drop ceilings with recessed lighting were installed, and steel security doors were installed at the two exterior entrances. Finally, new wallboard was installed and everything got a couple coats of paint.

The museum committee had been working, too, using a moveable panel system designed by Glenn Young to divide the third classroom into exhibit areas. Young fabricated the dividers and the locking pins after which volunteers painted the frames and museum committee members installed burlap coverings before the panels were moved into place and secured. With display cases donated by Shuler’s Drug Store and other Oswego businesses, artifacts were placed on exhibit all in time for the museum’s grand opening in the spring of 1983 in time for the celebration of Oswego’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

09 1984 LWS look front

Interior of the Little White School Museum’s main room after demolition of the drop ceiling and partitions. (Little White School Museum collection)

By that time, and after much debate, the decision had been made to follow the recommendations championed by Glenn Young to return the Little White School Museum’s main room back to its original, classic Greek Revival dimensions. It would be a single room, 36 x 50 feet with 17 foot ceilings, complete with restored windows, replica oil lamps installed where the building’s original lamps had hung, and refinished trim, replicated where necessary. To accomplish that, all the interior partitions would have to be torn out, including the newer vestibule, the drop ceiling would have to be removed, the stairways to the basement washrooms would have to be removed and the floor patched, and the original, smaller, vestibule restored.

Fortunately for the project, the United Auto Workers local at Oswego Township’s Caterpillar, Inc. plant happened to pick the autumn of 1983 to go on strike. That freed up some of the workers at Cat who, when they weren’t walking the picket line, volunteered to help with the interior demolition work. By late fall, the room was back to its original dimensions and the scope of work could be determined. The old stairwells were capped, and major floor repairs near the buildings front door were completed, and then the lumber salvaged after the demolition work was used to restore the original vestibule, the dimensions of which were clearly visible.

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

Glenn Young gluing up a frosted plate glass window pane during the glue-chipping process. About 12 hours of volunteer time was spent on each restored window sash. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next question was what to do with the walls and ceiling, repair the original horsehair plaster or tear it all off. The decision was made to repair it, but before that happened the opportunity was taken to blow insulation into the walls from the inside since the holes in the plaster walls could easily be patched during the wall repair. The entire room was also rewired with heavy duty wire and new outlets installed throughout, along with a new 200-amp breaker panel.

After both the wall and ceiling repairs and the insulation installation were finished, everything got a coat of heavy duty sealer, followed by two coats of off-white paint.

Meanwhile, the wainscoting that had been removed during restoration work had been stripped of its paint, but there was still lots of wainscoting still in place around the room that needed to be stripped. So my son, and his best friend, spend their summer earning a bit of spending money by stripping decades of paint with heat guns. When stripping was finished, and all the wainscoting boards replaced, Glenn Young began the process of graining it to look like more expensive oak boards, using the graining examples we found behind some of the room’s baseboard as a guide.

When restoration began, we found two small panes of the original 1901 diamond-patterned glass had survived in windows on the buildings southeast corner. We had no idea what the glass was, only that it was decorated with alternate rows of diamonds, one row frosted diamonds, and the next with a floral pattern that seemed etched into the glass itself. After a couple years of research, Glenn Young found the glass decorations had been created through a process called glue-chipping. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, glue-chipped glass could be bought by the square foot at almost every community’s lumber yard, but it was only obtainable by hobbiests creating their own when we decided to restore the Little White School Museum’s windows.

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Completed 4-sash window unit with glue-chipped panes and restored trim. Note the restored chair rail and grained wainscoting below the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young determined to figure out how to do glue-chipping, and so began a series of experiments. Originally, glue-chipping was done in the country’s glass factories. The diamond patterns were masked off with beeswax and then the panes were etched with hydrochloric acid. Then alternate rows of diamonds were painted with hide glue, which, when it dried, actually fractured the surface of the glass, leaving behind a fern-like pattern.

The first part of recreating the 32 individual 18×60 inch panes was relatively easy. Using the two original pieces of glue-chipped glass that still existed, Young created a template out of brown butcher’s paper. Then the new panes of plate glass were placed on the template and the diamond pattern created with pressure-sensitive packing tape cut to the right width. Then the taped-up panes were sandblasted to create an entire pane of frosted diamonds.

Through trial and error, Young found the correct mixture of dried hide glue and water to use and also determined it had to be kept at 140 degrees as he was carefully coating every other row of frosted diamonds. Figuring out how to properly dry the glue to create a consistent pattern was just as difficult. Eventually, it was found that allowing a glued-up pane to dry overnight, until it seemed dry to the touch, and then scattering a pound of silica gel crystals over the surface and wrapping it in plastic sheeting to flash-dry the rest of the moisture out of the glued diamonds was the most effective. The flash-drying process actually sounds like corn popping, as the glue, which has adhered to the rows of frosted diamonds, quickly contracts and fractures the surface, jumping up and bouncing off the plastic sheeting.

As each glue-chipped pane was created, it was carefully moved into a restored and painted sash to be glazed and then painted. Glass is really a solid liquid, and the glue-chipping process removes the surface tension that gives each pane its strength. Unless handled extremely carefully, panes fold up, breaking along the lines of the sandblasted diamonds.

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

Glenn Young finishes hanging one of the restored, electrified oil lamp fixtures in the Little White School Museum’s main room. (Little White School Museum collection)

We found we had enough original trim to restore half the room’s windows, so we took a sample up to Commercial Woodworking in Aurora where they created custom knives for their shapers to produce enough trim for the rest of the windows. Then as each set of four sashes was finished, the windows were restored, one after the other.

While that project was underway, the building’s heating system was completely replaced with a 98% efficient gas furnace. To avoid cutting a large hole in the floor for a return air duct, we built the ducts into the sides of the restored pulpit platform, covering them with decorative cast iron grilles. We were also working on the building’s basement, aiming to turn it into an artifact and archival storage area. When we ripped the old basement ceiling down, we found that over the years as this or that new heating system had been installed, floor joists had been cut out and never replaced. So as the window project continued (Young was spending about 12 hours of volunteer time most weekends on it) we spent a year scabbing new 2×8 floor joists onto the old joists and leveling, as far as we could, the floor.

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

My son Nathaniel literally grew up with the Little White School Museum’s restoration. At left, he inspects one of the building’s 11×11 inch structural timbers. At right, he finishes the main room’s pulpit platform floor in 2002. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the windows restored, we were seeing some light at the end of the restoration tunnel. And so we began working on restoring the main room’s lighting. We’d decided years before to use what the 1902 Sears catalog referred to as “store fixtures.” The building had apparently not been electrified until the 1930s, so there was no knob and tube wiring or any other antique system to deal with. Instead, in the building’s attic we found the counterweights, wooden pulleys, and wrought iron rods from which its seven oil lamps hung. The lamps were pulled down to trim the wicks and fill the fonts with oil. The counterweights—small boxes made from wainscot scraps—were fortunately still full of the rocks used to balance the weights of the lamps so we weighed a couple to figure out how heavy the original lamps were. And then we went shopping in the Sears catalog to

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The completely restored main room at the Little White School Museum provides community meeting space. (Little White School Museum collection)

figure out what lamps might have been used. For the next few years we gradually acquired nickel-plated kerosene lamps and fonts until we had enough for the whole room.

Back then, it was fashionable to buy the lamps and have the nickel plating removed to display the polished brass the fonts were actually made from. We were fortunate to find a small local plating business that agreed to replace all our lamp fonts with nickel as an in-kind donation. We then got Lee Winckler, a true artist in metalworking, make the lamp shades and harps, and to make the electrified burners too. Since the counterweights and rods were still in the building’s attic, we knew exactly where each lamp was to be positioned. We used ¼” black pipe to simulate the original wrought iron rods, and standard electrical lamp hooks to hang each lamp. Interestingly enough, we found the lamps were positioned over the building’s two side aisles, with three others grouped above the pulpit platform.

The last project was to floor the pulpit platform, and for that we were able to hire my son, who had been working on the building since he was five years old. The floor was finished in the autumn of 2002, wrapping up a quarter century of restoration work.

2013 June LWS Museum

Oswego’s Little White School Museum was in danger of demolition in 1976. Today it is a community landmark and repository for the Oswego area’s history. (Little White School Museum collection)

The moral of our story is restoration using mostly volunteer labor is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not a quick process, either—witness my son, who literally grew up with the project. But it does have its positives, too, especially having a community landmark to look at when you (finally) get done with it.

Today, the Little White School Museum, open seven days a week thanks to financial support from the Oswegoland Park District, is open seven days a week, annually hosts thousands of visitors, features a comprehensive community history museum, and houses a collection of nearly 27,000 photographs, artifacts, and archival materials. It is a tribute to all those instrumental in its preservation, from the grassroots group spearheaded by Janis Hoch who founded the Oswegoland Heritage Association, to the Oswego School District officials who took a chance that plans to restore the building would pan out, to Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Ford Lippold and his successor, Bert Gray, who were determined to save the building for future generations to the community groups who donated time, effort, and money, to all those who’ve served on the heritage association’s board for the last 40 years.

I suspect it’s exactly what the folks who created National Historic Preservation Month had in mind back in 1973 when they got the historic preservation ball rolling.

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Filed under Architecture, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Uncategorized

Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

It is somehow fitting that November is Native American Heritage Month, given that the greatest gift Native People gave to agricultural history was the corn their agronomists developed over thousands of years.

Of course, it’s also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday with its origin back in the 1620s when a ragtag group of religious separatists held such a celebration in New England to thank God for their survival. They’d have been more honest and accurate if they’d thanked the Native People who showed them how to plant corn, and whose stores of the grain probably pulled them through that first year of near starvation.

modern corn harvest

The nation’s corn harvest is well underway–in fact lots of farmers have already wrapped it up for this year. And the yield is already on its way to being shipped around the world.

The value corn holds for the nation is clear during this season of the year, especially, as farmers all over the Midwest hustle to get their fields harvested while the weather holds. Sometimes in 24 hour a day shifts, self-propelled combines work the fields picking, husking, and shelling corn kernels from the ears. When the on-board bins are full, they’re off-loaded into trucks or wagons waiting on the headlands. From the field, the golden harvest may be stored in bins on the farm, hauled to a grain elevator, or taken directly to the Illinois Waterway, the modern incarnation of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, where its loaded on barges for shipment south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there all over the world.

Corn is pretty common stuff these days. We pop it on cool evenings or to enjoy a movie at home, we boil sweet ears and enjoy them with butter during the summer, and we consume it in hundreds of products as starch or a sweetener. We even use alcohol made from it as fuel in our cars and trucks.

But as I noted above, for something so common, it’s mysterious stuff. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, and was called maize by Native Americans. It had been grown and genetically modified for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North and South America. By then, it had become the major source of vegetable food for the peoples of the Americas.

Ancient corn

Ancient corn’s family group sheet looks pretty definitive. But, really, those earliest ancestors over there on the left side are pretty much guesswork.

The Europeans found that corn was a wonderful plant. It produces far more grain per seed kernel than almost any other, and the grain it produces is very nutritious. It’s likely that a store of corn the Pilgrims dug up after they landed in 1620 was mainly responsible for their survival during their first brutal winter in New England. That they stole the corn from its rightful owners—the local Indians who grew and harvested it—was a harbinger of the way the two peoples would interact for the next 300 years.

There are five great subdivisions of corn: Pop corn, sweet corn, flour, flint, and dent. Popcorn, we all know. It has the interesting characteristic of turning itself inside out when heat is applied thanks to the extremely tough coating of its kernels. Flint corn has relatively small, hard, smooth kernels, while dent is the most familiar having relatively large kernels with dented (thus the name) crowns. Sweet corn is a type of dent with a genetic modification that prevents some of the sugar produced in the kernel from being converted into starch. Flour corn, too, is a form of dent with a very soft starchy kernel easily ground into flour. There are also a couple of other minor varieties, waxy and pod corn, grown in some parts of the world today. Pod corn, in fact, is a sort of throwback to what scientists believe is closer to the original primitive perennial corn.

cahokia-c

Wherever corn came from, it fueled formation of sophisticated civilizations like the Mississippian cultural tradition in Southern Illinois, whose huge city at Cahokia may have housed more than 40,000 people.

In fact, scientists are still arguing about exactly what corn is descended from. Duke University researcher Mary Eubanks believes enterprising and observant Native American farmers developed corn some thousands of years ago by interbreeding two varieties of wild grasses. Eubanks believes that Eastern gamagrass, and Zea diploperennis, a perennial variety of teosinte (a tall annual grass found in Mexico) were crossbred to create the original maize that started the Native Americans’ agricultural revolution. The apparent problem with all the supposed ancestors of corn is that none of them have cobs on which the kernels form. Figuring out how to get from cobless bunches of kernels to kernels forming on a cob is the big problem nobody’s been able to solve. At least so far.

Whatever its origins, corn seems to have emerged in the Mexican highlands or perhaps in Guatemala, and later spread all over North and South America.

Corn, it turns out, is uniquely suited for genetic manipulation. Kernels were originally planted two or three to a hill rather than broadcast like wheat, oats, and other small grains in Old Europe. And ears of corn were harvested one at a time. That meant an observant farmer knew exactly which seeds produce the best crops.

Corn is also somewhat unique in that a genetic cross shows up in the first generation. That’s why gardeners are strongly advised not to plant a stand of decorative Indian corn next to the sweet corn they plan to eat.

Corn arrived in the Fox Valley and the rest of Illinois about 600 A.D. and quickly became the basis on which several Native American cultural traditions were based. Even at that early date, the state’s broad river valleys with their rich alluvial soils produced bumper crops.

Corn was growing everywhere plants could grow when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 15th Century.

European settlers worked to further improve the native corn varieties by intensive cross breeding. It was eventually found that a cross between New England flints and southerly dents created a hybrid that out-yielded either of the two ancestor varieties. That original cross was the basis for the dozens of different hybrid varieties that grow in fields all over the Fox Valley today.

Especially during this month, when you drive around the countryside and see those fields of corn being harvested, with the grain sold to people in every corner of the globe, you might give a tip of the hat to whichever brilliant ancient Native American farmer came up with that original cross of whatever ancient strains of grass that led to corn’s creation.

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Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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A terrible, honorable sacrifice finally memorialized

It’s been hot and humid here around and about the Matile Manse, and when that happens, I tend to hunker down and find things to do to procrastinate so I don’t have to leave my cool dehumidified confines and at the same time don’t have to get involved in difficult research.

What that means, in practice, is mining Ancestry.com for family info to fill in the gaps (which are many and wide) in my family genealogy. One way to waste a LOT of time is to delve, once again, into my Minnich clan. My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Wolf, married Johan Minnich in 1846 back in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Wolf and Minnich are both extremely common names in that place and time, so there are dozens of blind alleys to go down, trips that waste loads of time, so perfect for procrastinating.

So the other day, I fired up my family database once again, and started looking through the Wolf side of Mary Ann’s family and I noted that not only was her father named Michael, but so was one of her brothers, which struck me as interesting. Brother Michael’s information was pretty thin on the ground—birth date but no death date—so I started digging to see if I could at least put Michael to rest.

And that’s when an interesting, tragic story began to unfold. Michael was born in 1840 in Schuylkill County, the fourth son and fifth child of Michael and Becky Shaefer Wolf. They mined lots of coal in Schuylkill, and the Wolf boys went into the mines. That’s what they were doing the Civil War broke out. Brother Isaac signed up right away, enlisting in Company A, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, enlisting in August, 1861, and marching off to war with the regiment’s 1,000 or so newly recruited soldiers in September.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield. (National Park Service)

As it turned out, the 50th Pennsylvania saw an awful lot of hard campaigning, from its very first commitment to action. Loaded aboard the sailing transport Winfield Scott, the regiment was shipped south to participate in the Union attempt to seize Charleston, S.C. On the way, a huge storm blew up and the entire regiment was nearly lost at sea off Cape Hatteras. From the inconclusive South Carolina campaign, the 50th moved back north to fight at Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before being sent west to Kentucky and then to Mississippi, where they fought under U.S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign. From there, they marched back east to Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, Tennessee where it mustered just 80 soldiers fit for duty, although even some of those were still suffering from the effects of malaria contracted in the swamps around Vicksburg.

Gradually, the sick and wounded returned to duty during the stay at Knoxville, which was fortunate because the regiment was hurried northeast to throw back a Confederate advance into East Tennessee, which the American army did at the Battle of Blue Springs. Back in Knoxville thanks to the advance of Confederates under James Longstreet, the 50th was heavily engages at the Battle of Fort Sanders during the siege of the city until Longstreet was finally forced to retreat.

It was at Knoxville on Jan. 1, 1864 that the three-year enlistments of the 50th’s men ran out. Nearly the entire regiment reenlisted for another term, after which they took an extremely arduous march east and then on to Harrisburg in their home state. There they were granted veterans’ furloughs and they headed home with orders to return in early spring. It’s likely Isaac went home and talked with his younger brother, Michael, about serving in the 50th. Whatever his motivation, Michael enlisted as a private in his brother’s Company A on April 6, 1864. He was officially mustered in the next day, April 7 at Pottsville in Schuylkill County.

On March 20, the 50th, veterans and new recruits alike, rendezvoused at Annapolis, Maryland where it was organized, the troops drilled, and then assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, IX Corps. With their corps, the 50th marched south to join Gen. U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Their route took them through Washington, D.C. where they were personally reviewed by President Lincoln and on farther south across the old Bull Run battlefield where they’d fought so hard three years before.

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

Grant was aiming directly for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and was hoping to prevent him from reaching the fortifications around Richmond. As Grant attempted to force his IX Corps through a dense patch of woods and brush called The Wilderness, Lee struck in yet another of his ill-conceived offensives. Because the strategic fact was that while Grant’s American army could afford to lose men, Lee’s rebels could not afford to lose a single soldier.

The Battle of the Wilderness was a harbinger of bloody fights to come as Grant continually attempted to slip around Lee’s rebels to cut them off from Richmond. Grant had cold-bloodedly decided on a strategy of attrition after coming to the conclusion that the rebel armies simply could not withstand sustained combat due to lack of personnel. The close-quarters combat cost the Union 17,666 casualties, including 2,246 killed in action, which could be replaced. It cost Lee 11,033 irreplaceable, trained soldiers—1,477 of them killed. Although no one really understood yet, it was the beginning of the end for the South and slavery.

Not among the casualties were the Wolf brothers, even though the 50th Pennsylvania was heavily engaged. It must have been a sobering baptism of fire for Michael, but pretty much business as usual for Isaac.

Tactically, the battle was inconclusive, but strategically, it was one more disaster for Lee as he lost more than a division’s worth of priceless troops. Even more sobering for Lee was Grant’s tenacity. He was used to other American generals who, after a similar bloody fight, would have spent time reorganizing and licking their wounds. Not Grant.

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it's wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it’s wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After disengaging at The Wilderness, Grant immediately tried out-marching Lee, a futile hope—the Confederates were known for rapid marching. The rebels ended up beating the Union to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The 50th, along with the rest of Burnside’s IX Corps, moved southwest along the Fredericksburg Pike, encountering Cadmus Wilcox’s rebel division northeast of Spotsylvania at the Ni River on May 9. The 50th’s regimental history recounts what happened next: “With fixed bayonets, the Fiftieth, led by Lieutenant Colonel [Edward] Overton, charged up the up the steep ascent, and routed a force of the enemy greatly superior in number; but the success was gained at a fearful cost, losing in killed, wounded and missing, one hundred and twenty men.”

Among those who fell during that bloody assault was Michael Wolf, a soldier for just a month and two days. A Confederate Minié ball struck Wolf’s left arm just below the shoulder, shattering the humerus, knocking him out of the fight and the war. Brother Isaac again escaped without a scratch, and went on to serve for several more months before being mustered out on Sept. 29, 1864.

Michael was carried to a Union field hospital where surgeons, working as quickly as possible under grim conditions, amputated the arm at the shoulder since there was no sound bone left to form a stump. He was evacuated to Carver General Hospital at Washington, D.C., arriving there May 14. Not until July was he strong enough to travel. On July 6 he was discharged and sent home to Schuylkill County.

His sister, my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann, went to visit as soon as he arrived home and was shocked at the appearance of this once-hearty former coal miner. “I found him propped up in bed, his heart beating very hard and fast,” she recalled years afterward. Because of the way the amputation was done, there were problems with property routing blood vessels, creating heart problems. “From the time of his discharge to his death he was troubled all the time with heart disease and often had severe attacks of it so that he was confined to his bed,” Mary Ann recalled.

In 1868, my great-great grandparents decided try their luck in Illinois, first settling out on the Wheatland Township prairie where they farmed for a few years before moving to a place just north of Oswego in the old Village of Troy where Mary Ann maintained a boarding house and wove rag rugs on a loom Johann made for her while he found work on the railroad.

Michael, hearing reports of how nice it was in Illinois—and there being no market for one-armed coal miners—decided to move west, too. He settled with his sister and her family for a while, and then even found someone to marry. Elizabeth Orr was divorced with two growing children, but the couple apparently made a go of it on Michael’s slim $24 a month soldier’s disability pension. Elizabeth’s children married into local families and Michael dealt with the unnumbered health problems resulting from his short, disastrous, military career. He died in Oswego in 1884.

The Sept. 10, 1884 Kendall County Record carried his short, poignant obituary: “Michael Wolf, the one armed soldier who has been almost in continual distress—his arm was taken off at the shoulder joint, leaving no stump, which caused certain disarrangements in the arterial system and affected the heart—and who has been on the failing order for some time died the latter part of the week. The funeral took place Sunday afternoon from the house.”

He was buried with so many of his Civil War comrades in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Michael Wolf's new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

Michael Wolf’s new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

The family was too poor to provide a tombstone for Michael’s grave, so it remained unmarked. Until this year. The local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War decided to make a project of obtaining stones for the unmarked graves of Union soldiers in the Oswego Township Cemetery. My friend Stephenie Todd worked to find living relatives of the fallen soldiers—blood relatives must sign off on the efforts to mark soldiers’ unmarked graves in order to receive a U.S. Government-supplied tombstone. Earlier this summer, volunteers set the veterans’ stones, including one for Michael Wolf obtained thanks to my distant relatives Ron Moses and Ted Clauser.

As readers of this blog and my column in the Kendall County Record newspapers know, I am no fan of the Civil War. It was fought over the most depraved of causes—the enslavement of human beings—which was so essential to the world view of a large fraction of the nation’s population that they were willing to commit treason and attempt to destroy their country in order to perpetuate it. For uncounted thousands of soldiers who fought against slavery and for national union, the war never ended. Like Michael Wolf, they lived lives of unending and perpetual pain, both physical and mental. The very least we can and should do is provide the small recognition of a grave marker for those who gave so much of themselves to keep our nation united and free from such a terrible stain. Now, thanks to some who’ve never forgotten their sacrifices, at least a few more of those unremembered veterans can rest a bit easier.

 

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It’s a family thing…

My mother took over the mantle of family historian back in the early 1970s, and so began pulling together an updated genealogy of her mother’s family. That family had been the subject of a book written back in the 1920s, but hadn’t been updated since.

So, she started writing to relatives near and far, collecting information that she eventually self-published in time for our annual family reunion during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.

Her work got me interested in the subject, and since it was about that time I started writing a weekly column on local history, I decided to look into my dad’s family history, and my mom volunteered to help a bit with that.

And since then, the topic of family history has expanded in our household to both my mother’s parents’ families and both my dad’s parents, as well as my wife’s related families.

According to the National Geographic's analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

According to the National Geographic’s Genographic Project analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

Several years ago, my niece bought a National Geographic Genographic Project DNA test kit for me for Christmas, which I dutifully sent off, because I figured it would open a few more historical doors—which it did.

When the results came back, they showed that my roots are deep indeed, stretching back to some of the earliest folks who were folks some 150,000 years ago on my mom’s side and then to a group of people who lived in the Rift Valley of Africa somewhere around 79,000 years ago on my dad’s side of the ledger. It would be truly interesting if one or two of those sets of early remains the Leakey family discovered in the Rift might belong to one of my ancestors.

So anyway, about 50,000 years ago, the Ice Age then gripping the planet turned Africa’s arid plains into grasslands, at which time my dad’s ancestors followed the game they relied on for sustenance north through the Arabian Peninsula before turning farther east into Eurasia and then circling west. Eventually, they reached Lombardy in northern Italy, where my dad’s earliest recorded ancestors lived before they moved to Switzerland in the 1300s.

According to the National Geographic folks, my mom’s line begins with Mitochondrial Eve, the beginning of the matrilineal line for all modern humans. The family spent some tens of thousands of years moving around central Africa. My mom’s ancestors split off Eve’s line and then split again about 80,000 years ago. And those were the folks who moved out of Africa, spurred on by the same conditions that prompted my dad’s ancestors to leave. That group split yet again, with one wave heading east to settle Australia and Polynesia, and the other moving ever farther north into the Near East—and those were my mom’s ancestors. About 50,000 years ago my mom’s ancestors moved north across the Caucasus Mountains and into the lands around the Black Sea. And that’s where, apparently, we acquired the part of our family that is related to the Ashkenazi Jewish people.

In 1867 my dad's grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

In 1867 my dad’s grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the bark-rigged Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

Finding out that my mom was genetically related to one half of the great Jewish ancestral heritage (the others are the Sephardim of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) came as no real surprise. My cousin’s granddaughter (related to me through my mother’s line) had then recently died of Tay Sachs disease, which requires a genetic Jewish component from both the mother and the father’s side.

There are, however, no Jews in my family genealogy. That probably means those Ashkenazi ancestors survived the pogroms and other brutal anti-Semitic assaults common in Eastern Europe until relatively modern times by renouncing their heritage and being baptized as Christians.

So anyway, that got my family to Europe. My mom’s family pretty much came from Germany. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German Palatinate in 1750, becoming Pennsylvania Deutsch. My maternal grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, coming over from East Prussia in 1885. Thus Pennsylvania Deutsch joined with Deutsch to create…my mom.

My maternal grandfather's parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My maternal grandfather’s parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My paternal grandfather’s family came over from Switzerland in 1867, first setting in Erie, Pennsylvania where he worked as a—and I know this seems a bit hackneyed—Swiss watchmaker. Really. The family then moved to Kansas, for reasons not entirely clear. Although there was a French settlement there at Le Loupe. My paternal grandmother’s family apparently came from Ireland, but when and what those ancestors’ names were I haven’t been able to determine. That’s because their name was Mitchell and they settled in New York City where the name is a dime a dozen. I know they came before the Civil War, because my Great-grandfather Mitchell served in an Ohio 100-day regiment during the war.

During the last several years, both my wife and I became fascinated with TV shows based around genealogy. In particular, we have greatly enjoyed historian Henry Louis Gates’ programs on PBS. For Christmas a couple years ago, I got my wife one of Ancestry.com’s DNA tests, which she sent in for analysis. This past winter, I did the same, and so we now have a pretty good handle on our ancestry after Europe’s earliest history.

During one of Dr. Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” episodes, he analyzed the family history of some movie star or another, and determined the guy was “one of the whitest people” he’d ever met. The star’s DNA proved he had virtually pure white, European DNA. And both my wife and I found about the same results.

My wife, it turns out, is descended from ancestors from Great Britain. In fact, the percentage of British ancestry in her DNA is greater than that of the average resident of Great Britain. Her DNA is 79 percent from Great Britain; the average resident of Great Britain only has 60 percent British DNA.

My DNA on the other hand, showed I’m 63 percent Western European, a higher percentage than the average modern Western European, who has just 48 percent Western European DNA.

So no American Indians in our background, not much other than the barest traces of people who aren’t white, including that tiny bit of Ashkenazi from my distant cousins in Eastern Europe. Which is maybe why I’m so fond of kosher corned beef and bagels. Or maybe not.

Whatever, searching for our roots has provided some grounding, some satisfaction for both my wife as we’ve been able to go beyond family tradition and stories to find out where our ancestors really came from. It’s perhaps not all that exciting, but then again we’re not very exciting people. And apparently we come from a long, long line of non-exciting people.

 

 

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The remarkable life and astonishing times of Dwight Smith Young

Down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, we have the audio tape and transcript of an interview with Dick Young that was done by an unfortunately anonymous high school student back in 1973.

Young was a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Marines during the Pacific island-hopping campaign, including some very heavy combat on Iwo Jima (where he earned two Purple Hearts). Like many of the Youngs, Dick was a polymath. He had been a contractor, a mason, and by 1973, he was serving as the first director of the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency, although he lived here in Oswego in a house he designed himself that features a sod roof.

The interview was a school project, designed to encourage community residents to talk about history in Oswego. For the interviewer, the story really started getting interesting when the discussion reached the Great Depression. In Dick’s matter-of-fact words:

“Between about 1930 and ‘36, as I recall, things were very tight. My father [Dwight Smith Young] worked as a maintenance man at a box factory in Aurora. His field was construction and everything like that dried up. And during the depression he built Route 34 through Oswego and he paved roads. That was his first job after about a year out of a job. I remember picking up hickory nuts and selling those, a bushel of those, and I remember helping with miscellaneous things to bring in a little change. Money would go a long way then as you can probably figure, since we started out for Aurora with 25 cents to do our weekly shopping. And they would buy their groceries with that. Then I don’t believe he got into anything until the end as a maintenance man at the factory. At the onset of World War II he was a physicist also and one of the original developers of the atomic bomb. He was one of the initial group in Chicago. It has been written up in a number of magazines, and then he went down to Los Alamos and was there for the original bomb explosion there and – I might add also, that on his own, he retired briefly and developed a miniature nuclear reactor, and then a few years later when the government got interested in rocketry, they took his individual little miniature reactor, took it and put it in the first rocket in the lab.”

Dwight Smith Young, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dwight Smith Young as a young photographer, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois, ca. 1914. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which sounds like a pretty wild tale, but the thing is, it’s true. Dwight Young really was a carpenter and contractor, and a professional photographer, too. And he really was working at a box factory in Aurora when he heard about a job opening up at the University of Chicago with a group called the Metallurgical Laboratory. The guy heading up that project was Enrico Fermi, and in reality the “Metallurgical” part was a cover for the very hush-hush project of developing an atomic weapon.

Young got the job after a face-to-face interview with one of the physicists working on the project. When the lab moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico (where it morphed into the Manhattan Project), to continue developing the atom bomb, Young went along as a photographer and general engineering assistant. Because he, too, was one of the polymaths the Young family seems to produce on a regular basis, he apparently absorbed atomic theory through osmosis and actually did become a nuclear physicist, publishing a number of papers and, yes, even developing the first-known breeder reactor as a testbed.

Dwight Smith Young was born Oct. 22, 1892 in Elgin, Illinois, son of Lou C. and Mary Young, members of two of Oswego’s pioneer families.

Within a few years, the family moved back to Oswego, where Dwight attended school and learned the carpentry trade from his father. He, like many of his friends during the era when Oswego only had a two-year high school, went on to East Aurora High, graduating in 1910, already fascinated with photography.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young worked at both photography and carpentry with his father, leaving a priceless photographic record of many of the projects Lou Young built, from houses to farm buildings, not to mention a historic collection of Oswego area views created during the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1916, he was in Texas to record the devastation caused by the Galveston hurricane. Heading back to Illinois, he opened a photography studio in Wilmington. There, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing pilot training in Texas when the war ended. Heading back to Illinois, he continued working as a photographer and carpenter.

Which brings us up to the time of the story Dwight’s son Dick told that youthful interviewer back in 1973.

When the first atomic test was set in New Mexico, Young recalled he was not at first interested in viewing it. But then decided to go ahead to see what he could see, walking from Los Alamos to Santa Fe, a 12 hour stroll—not an unusual hike for Young, who enjoyed rambling over the desert countryside. After catching a few hours sleep in a Santa Fe hotel, he was walking into the city plaza when the southern sky suddenly flashed brighter than the sun, which he took as confirmation the project’s success.

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation's first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litte White School Museum collection)

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation’s first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litlte White School Museum collection)

Young never expressed any doubts about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, his three sons were all fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, John flying for the U.S. Army Air Corps; Dick, as noted above, island-hopping with the U.S. Marines; and Stan, fighting as a U.S. Army paratrooper.

After the war, Young continued to work as an atomic researcher, and was present during the world’s second nuclear accident on May 21, 1948. At the demand of Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the nation’s nuclear program, Dr. Louis Slotin, and a team of scientists and technologists were attempting to accurately measure the critical mass of two hemispheres of fissionable uranium held apart with shims. During that era, things were much more primitive than today. As Slotin pried the two hemispheres apart with a screwdriver, manually removing shims and gaging the result, the wooden assembly slipped, all the shims fell out, and the two hemespheres came together, starting a chain reaction. Although not enough material was there to cause an atomic explosion, there was more than enough material to create a giant burst of gamma rays. Slotin immediately knocked the two hemispheres of radioactive material apart with his hand, probably saving the other technicians and scientists in the room—including Young—from immediate death.

Slotin died of radiation poisoning within nine days. Young, who was standing opposite Slotin at the time, received a heavy, but non-lethal, dose of radiation; Slotin’s body absorbed most of the flash. Hospitalized for observation, Young was released, but forever after blamed Groves’ insistence on test results before proper equipment was available for Slotin’s death. “There was no need to kill Louis Slotin to show that making critical mass measures should be made by remote control,” he wrote in 1975.

Shortly thereafter, Young began working on a breeder reactor of his own design that was to be used to test nuclear theory. He was also busy publishing papers on nuclear physics, still doing photography, and was also deeply involved in archaeology in the Arizona and New Mexico area.

And that brings us to 1953 when Young’s boss, Hugh Paxton, was busy trying to figure out how to promote Young from his technician’s rating to full staff member status. Paxton and his colleagues had come to heavily rely on Young’s expertise in a wide range of subjects critical to the nation’s nuclear program, from nuclear physics itself to more prosaic skills including photography and basic engineering.

As the personnel division noted, Young’s activities in his current grade were “anomalous, in that his activities do not fit the graded series,” since he was engaged in work far above his technician’s grade. With understatement, Paxton added, “On the other hand, his formal education is far short of that generally associated with staff member status.” Because, as Paxton noted to his superiors, Young didn’t have a degree in nuclear physics. In fact, he didn’t have a college degree at all.

In his letter to request Young’s promotion, Paxton noted the Los Alamos team had initially been dismissive of Young’s work on his innovative breeder reactor.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

“The work received no encouragement because of the nearly unanimous expectation of the rest of us that precision would be inadequate,” Paxton wrote, adding, “Actually, the results are beautiful.”

Young got his promotion becoming probably the only non-degreed physicist ever at Los Alamos and continued to work on the nation’s nuclear programs until his retirement in 1966. After retiring, Young moved to the Texas gulf shore where he experimented with meteorology and engaged in his loves of botany, biology, archaeology, gardening, and cooking. In declining health, probably due in part to the stress on his body caused by that nuclear accident a couple decades before, he came back north to briefly live with his son, John, before dying on Christmas Eve, 1972, the end of a remarkable life.

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