Tag Archives: research

Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

My generation and how we came to view the Civil War…

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read semi-regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece back in the summer of 2017 entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his strange views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I, for that matter—were getting our basic educations.

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

But recently I got to thinking about that again as I did research on how the Civil War affected Kendall County in general and Oswego in particular. The war had a huge impact locally. For instance, it was probably responsible, at least in part, for Kendall County’s long-term population decline. Kendall did not reach its 1860 population again until the 1920 census was taken.

And those thoughts, in turn, got me to thinking about that article I’d read back in 2017 and how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best and outright racist at worst.

1859 john brown

John Brown, who attempted to start a rebellion against the U.S. Government, could reasonably be declared a terrorist. He was executed after his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

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

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

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

1859 underground railroad

Some of the local stations on the Underground Railroad just before the Civil War. From the 1914 history of Kendall County.

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

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

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

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

lee, robert e

Robert E. Lee, while he was still a loyal U.S. Army officer.

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

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

1864 grant at cold harbor

Gen. Hiram Ulysses Grant photographed at Cold Harbor, 1864. Grant later said Cold Harbor was the one battle during the war he’d rather never to have done.

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War.

What about the idea that Grant was a clumsy butcher who only won because he was indifferent to the numbers of Union casualties he caused? Modern research suggests that’s simply not true. Using actual casualty figures, historians have now concluded that the term “butcher” might better fit Lee. In Grant’s major federal campaigns, he suffered just a bit more than 94,000 killed and wounded. Meanwhile, in Lee’s major campaigns, he suffered more than 121,000 killed and wounded. Lee continually dismissed the strategic fact that he couldn’t afford casualties at all; he was badly outnumbered by the American military.

murdock, a.x pooley

Oswegoans Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were two of the young men who died during the Civil War, killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church in 1864. More than 200 Kendall County soldiers died during the war.

Immediately after the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Record editor John R. Marshall commented about the recent conflict and the Southerners who conducted it: “The great and final act of the accursed slaveholders’ rebellion has culminated in this one outrageous, dastardly, and hellborn murder.”

There was even more general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to terrorize freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights as American citizens. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

Unfortunately, those tools were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights.

But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

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

When I think back on it, the casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too.

Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. His Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

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

 

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Education, Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Shabbona’s life a microcosm of 19th Century white – Indian relations…

We took a drive up to Aurora with some friends this past week to both visit a Fox River art exhibit at Aurora University and to listen to a speaker at AU’s Schingoethe Center. It was a very satisfying evening.

The exhibit, open through Dec. 14, is “Joel Sheesley: A Fox River Testimony,” featuring 73 landscapes painted during a two-year period, in all seasons of the year, from West Dundee in the north to Ottawa in the south. A number of scenes Sheesley chose for subjects were familiar, but his vision of those familiar spots makes them look fresh and new, and gave me, at least, a new appreciation of the beauty of our river valley. I highly recommend this exhibit. If you can’t make it, though, don’t worry because it sounds like it may also be coming to the Little White School Museum next spring.

After enjoying view of the valley, we wandered over to the Tapper Recital Hall in the same building to hear “The Power of Place: The Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Illinois and the Fox River Valley” by Dr. John N. Low of the Ohio State University at Newark, OH.

Low’s an interesting guy. Himself an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, he’s earned a juris doctorate as well as a Ph.D in American Culture and is currently on the OSU faculty.

Leopold Pokagon

Chief Leopold Pokagon

My rule of thumb is that it’s a poor day when I don’t learn something new, and Low certainly taught me something new the other evening, namely that all of the members of the Three Fires Confederacy were not forced west by the U.S. Government in 1836. A separate band of 280 individuals, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi named after the chief, Leopold Pokagon, was allowed to stay in southern Michigan and northern Indiana after the Treaty of 1833 extinguished the claims of the rest of the Three Fires’ land in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.

Between 1836 and 1838, the rest of the Three Fires were rounded up and forced west, including two well-known local chiefs, Waubonsie and Shabbona.

Although Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted in 1829. He returned to Illinois in 1837 despite the official removal then going on and lived at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been seized and sold at public auction. This high-handed act has resulted in more than a little legal action over the years, which, as I understand it, isn’t settled yet.

1858 abt Shabbona

Chief Shabbona, about 1858

The citizens of Ottawa, however, seeing that the old chief’s land had been stolen from him, pooled their resources and bought him a small farm near Seneca in LaSalle County.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington, the son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother. Just under 6 feet in height, he was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely, as it was spelled phonetically. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena.

1765 Pontiac

Pontiac, about 1765. As no portraits of the Ottawa chief are known to exist, this is an artist’s conception.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac planned, organized, and carried out 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, aiming to fill the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois and Indiana where they settled along the Wabash, Kankakee, Illinois, St. Joseph, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

The three tribal groups mixed freely and frequently. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potawatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an Ottawa, was elevated to chief upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires were mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British. After the Revolution, British forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military leader Blue Jacket.

1812 Tecumseh

Tecumseh, about 1812, in a British Army uniform.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won the battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict.

Despite the setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American opposition to U.S. control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, where he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s views, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin recruiting more members for the Wabash Confederacy.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Chief Waubonsee, about 1840

In 1812, war again broke out between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois, and after much deliberation, he concluded further opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1825, when the Winnebagos decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities. In return, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove in modern DeKalb County, and where the chief moved his village.

When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful. On the war’s outbreak, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to Chicago. One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potowatomis angered by Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that all Indians were to be removed from Illinois, and most were, with the exception of the Pokagon Band. And, as we saw above, Shabbona.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Shabbona’s friends in LaSalle County showed their appreciation for his efforts to maintain peace, and then to reduce human losses when the Black Hawk War broke out not only by helping him financially after his land had been stolen, but also by treating him as one of the community’s honored citizens.

1857 Shabbona ambrotype in case

Ambrotype of Chief Shabbona taken about 1857.

Which brings me to another interesting fact about the folks who lived in the Fox and Illinois River valleys in the 19th Century. The very first Lincoln and Douglas Debate, held during the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois was held at Ottawa. Both Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, and Douglas, the old-line Democrat, were well known politicians, Lincoln also famed because of his extremely successful legal career. So the crowd on hand to listen to the debate was a big one. The stage set up on the grounds of the LaSalle County Courthouse on the square in Ottawa provided room for the two speakers, plus chairs for local dignitaries. And among those invited luminaries was elderly Chief Shabbona, who by all accounts was warmly greeted by his Black Hawk War comrade, Abe Lincoln, who had served in the Illinois militia during the conflict.

Shabbona lived on his small farm near Seneca until the end of his life on July 17, 1859

What interests me is that just two decades after the Indians had been forcibly removed from Illinois, and less than 25 years after the Black Hawk War itself, Shabbona found himself treated as an honored citizen and local dignitary. That’s something that somehow doesn’t quite fit in with our usual view of how whites treated Indians during that era.

Shabbona is buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery under a marker paid for by donations from his admiring friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile, the Pokagon Band of Potawtomi Indians was not treated as a legitimate part of the Potawatomi Nation or the Three Fires Confederacy because, like Shabbona, they ultimately chose to stay. But following 160 years of struggle, they were finally granted official tribal status in 1994.

These two stories represent just some of the unknown stories about how Native People were treated differently by a disinterested and borderline hostile government and sympathetic local residents. Most, but not all of the Three Fires were forced west on what they came to call the Trail of Death. And most, but not all those forced west never returned. But there were exceptions and those exceptions make for great local history.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

The ultimate sacrifice of Elwyn Holdiman—a Memorial Day update

Last November, I wrote about the discovery that one of my distant cousins, Elwyn Holdiman, was killed in action during World War II.

A pretty typical Kendall County farm boy, his story was uncovered during our annual salute to local veterans down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, where I serve as the volunteer director. We do a lengthy special exhibit on the topic as the nation celebrates Veterans Day each year, and last year we discovered Elwyn Holdiman’s story. You can read about it here.

1935 Squires School students

Elwyn Holdiman attended classes at the one-room Squires School, located in Oswego at the corner of old Douglas Road and U.S. Route 34. He’s the tall kid in the back row circled in red.

But recently, the surprising reach of the Internet was brought home to me once again when a resident of the Netherlands ran across that blog post and contacted me concerning Holdiman’s death.

Werner van Osch, who created and maintains the 7th Armored Division Memorial Holland web site at http://www.7tharmoredmemorial.nl/index.php, contacted me to volunteer some more detailed information about Elwyn Holdiman’s death in combat back in October 1944.

Holdiman was a member of Company C of the 17th Tank Battalion, which itself was assigned to the 7th Armored Division. In the autumn of 1944, the 7th Division was part of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army that was fighting in Holland in support of Operation Market Garden, the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to leapfrog over strong German positions using British, American, Canadian, and Polish airborne troops, along with Dutch resistance forces, to seize militarily vital bridges.

In fighting that was a small part of the Battle of Canals on Oct. 29 against the German 9th Panzer Division a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire while Company C was supporting an infantry push.

After reading the 17th Tank Battalion’s after action reports, I concluded that Holdiman had been killed in action, along with the rest of the crew. Four casualties were listed with the tank’s destruction, including Holdiman; 2nd Lt. Robert W. Denny, the tank’s commander; loader and machine gunner Pvt. Michael Ferris; and Tec 4 Leo W. Goers, the tank’s driver.

According to the report on Company C filed by the 17th Tank Battalion about the action on Oct. 29: “This Company did an excellent job but they lost Lt. DENNY who had just recently been Commissioned from the ranks, he had previously been a Platoon Sergeant in the same Company, Lt. DENNY was an excellent leader and his loss is a great loss to the Company. ‘C’ Company lost four tanks in this action and they definitely knocked out five German Tanks.”

Sherman tank

A U.S. Army M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard Allied tank of World War II. Cpl. Elwyn Holdiman was killed in action when the Sherman Tank in which he was a crew member was destroyed by enemy fire on Oct. 29, 1944.

But the documents supplied by Werner van Osch show that I didn’t have the story quite right. Granted, the four soldiers killed I originally listed indeed died in that violent action. But a fifth member of the tank crew, Pvt. Frank Velus escaped with his life. The official documents also reported what happened after the four members of the tank crew were killed in action.

Holdiman’s family was initially informed he was missing in action on Nov. 11, 1944. Then after the deaths of the four members of the tank crew were confirmed, the Army officially reclassified him as killed in action on March 10, 1945.

The combat situation was apparently pretty fluid in that area of Holland as the Allies pushed the Germans steadily back. The British Royal Army was assigned to control the area, and when they moved in and secured it, they found the burned out tank on a secondary road in a peat bog just south of the road between Miejel and Asten.

According to a report filed by Royal Army Chaplain A.I Dunlop, the remains of Lt. Denny, badly burned, were found a couple yards from the tank, while the remains of Pvt. Ferris were twenty yards from the tank and were unburned. According to his report, the chaplain helped remove Holdiman’s burned and maimed body from the tank for burial. Dunlop added that Tech 4 Goers’ body was so badly burned the British didn’t remove it from the tank but left it in place.

The conditions being what they were, the British troops didn’t have time to identify the three bodies they’d recovered. They did, however, take the time to bury them in shallow graves next to each other, arranged with Ferris first, then Holdiman, and then Lt. Denny. The British soldiers erected crosses over the three, with the cross over Holdiman’s body carrying the inscription: “Unknown American soldier, K/A Oct/Nov ’44.” They forwarded reports about what they’d done—it would be up to the U.S. Army to handle further activity concerning the dead G.I.’s.

In September 1945, four months after the end of the war in Europe, U.S. Army Graves Registration personnel, with the help of a local Dutch family, located, recovered, and identified the three bodies from the hasty graves in which Holdiman and his three comrades had been buried. Holdiman was identified by the single dog tag that he still wore around his neck, even in death. The three were then removed to a U.S. military cemetery. Holdiman was reburied in plot KKK, row 11, grave 273 at the U.S. military cemetery at Margraten, Holland.

In early December 1947, the U.S. Army notified the Holdiman family that families of the nation’s war dead were invited to request the repatriation of their bodies from the sprawling European military cemeteries. The Holdiman family immediately requested that Elwyn Holdiman’s body be returned to the U.S. for burial in the family plot at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. In January 1948, the U.S. Army approved the Holdimans’ request.

Holdiman tombstone

Cpl. Edwyn Holdiman’s body was repatriated from Holland in 1948 and was reburied at Lincoln Memorial Park in Oswego Township in the family plot.

Cpl. Holdiman’s body was disinterred on Aug. 11, 1948, and readied for shipment back to Kendall County. His body was loaded aboard the USS Carroll Victory at Antwerp, Belgium for the trim back across the Atlantic on Oct. 29, 1948. The ship arrived back in the U.S. on Nov. 16.

After some minor repairs to the casket of damage sustained in shipping were completed on Dec. 10, Holdiman’s body was sent west to Illinois by train. Accompanied by a military escort, it was delivered on Monday, Dec. 13, 1948 to the Healy Undertaking Company on Downer Place in Aurora. His funeral was subsequently held at Lincoln Memorial Park in Oswego Township, where he was buried in the family plot.

As we look towards celebrating another Memorial Day, at a time when the nation’s young men and women are still fighting and dying in foreign battlefields, it is an excellent, and fitting, time to recall other young people of other generations—like Elwyn Holdiman—who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and the fight for freedom and in defense of the Constitution.

4 Comments

Filed under Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Remembering a forgotten casualty of World War II

It seems like most of the time I spend down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum these days is far too often devoted to paperwork of one kind or another.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much record-keeping goes into maintaining a museum collection, especially one that keeps on growing like ours does. Because, as I’ve told numerous visitors over the years, the trick’s not cataloging an item, safely storing it in proper media to assure its preservation, or putting it on a shelf or in a drawer. It’s finding it again after you do all that.

So any time I can get involved in doing actual history I consider golden. And one of those golden opportunities popped up earlier this month.

After my buddy, assistant museum director Bob Stekl, and his band of enthusiastic volunteers got this year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit mounted and opened (it ran Nov. 4-12 this year), Bob was giving a tour to a group of Cub Scouts when he realized something important appeared to be missing.

In each year’s exhibit, we feature a special section on those Oswegoans who were killed in action, from the Civil War through Vietnam. The World War II section of the special exhibit included posters honoring five local residents killed in action: Frank Clauser, Kay Fugate, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer Jr.

But when Bob and the group of Scouts moved on to another part of the exhibit and he started explaining about the community’s World War II service flag, he noticed something didn’t add up. The large service flag had a blue star on it for every community resident, male or female, serving in the war. When one of them was killed in action, their blue star was replaced with a gold star. And there were six, not five, gold stars on that flag.

1935 Squires School students

The students and teacher at Squires School in 1935. Elwyn Holdiman is circled in the back row. Squires School was located at the northeast corner of U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the tour was over, Bob headed back down into the museum archives to figure out what was going on. It didn’t take long before he found our missing gold star serviceman, Corporal Elwyn Holdiman.

When Bob told me about it the next day, we decided a poster honoring Holdiman’s service was needed right away, and so I started gathering information about him, all the while thinking that last name sounded familiar. We got the poster up later that day, but I continued to research Holdiman and his family for the biographical file we started on him.

It turned out the Holdimans had been in America for a long, long time. Elwyn’s sixth-times great grandparents, Christian and Christina Haldeman (the name evolved over the years), immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German-speaking Swiss canton of Bern sometime prior to 1716 when their son, Johannes (Elwyn’s fifth-times great grandfather), was born in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Johannes and his wife, Anna Marie ventured into the Virginia frontier of the 1750s, where Anna Marie was killed by Indians in 1758 during the French and Indian War. Their descendants subsequently settled in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, remaining for several decades before heading west with so many of their Pennsylvania German-speaking neighbors, to the rich prairies of Wheatland Township in Will County.

Elwyn’s great-grandfather, Joseph Holdiman, made that trip, probably in the late 1840s, and in 1850 married Catherine Lantz, newly arrived with her family, also from Pennsylvania. The couple had eight children before they decided to seek their fortunes farther west in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Their son, also named Joseph, born in Wheatland Township, stayed in the Wheatland area where he and his wife raised their family, including a son named Albert, Elwyn’s father.

Albert and his wife, Emma Lombard Holdiman, farmed in the area around Yorkville and Oswego, where they raised their 10 children. Elwyn, their third child, was born on January 20, 1920 in Oswego Township and attended the one-room Squires School at modern U.S. Route 34 and Old Douglas Road near Oswego and worked as a farmhand. And that’s what he was doing when he was drafted.

Sherman Tank schematic

Plan view of an M4 Sherman tank, arguably the most successful tank of World War II. Elwyn Holdiman operated his tank’s main gun.

On the day after his 22nd birthday, the Jan. 21, 1942, Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that: “Oswego men selected for induction from the local draft included Cecil E. Carlson, Paul T. Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer.”

After basic training, Pvt. Holdiman was assigned to the tank corps and was trained as a gunner on the M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard U.S. tank of World War II. The gunner controlled the tank’s main 75mm gun, and the .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret beside the main gun, though he followed the tank commander’s orders on what to shoot. Each weapon was fired with a foot switch on the gunner’s footrest. The gunner controlled the turret either with a hydraulic system independent of the tanks motor, or a manual back-up system using a crank and gears. Although the Sherman gunner’s view was very limited, it was better than most other tanks of the era. A good gunner working with a good loader in the 75mm armed Sherman could get off two or three aimed shots in very short time, a big advantage in combat.

7th Armored shoulder patch

U.S. Army’s 7th Armored Division shoulder patch

He was sent to Company C, in the 17th Tank Battalion, part of the brand new 7th Armored Division, activated at Camp Polk, Louisiana, under command of Gen. Lindsay Silvester on March 1, 1942. The division trained in Louisiana and Texas through early November 1942 and then underwent desert training in California. Then it was back east for more training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Along the way, Pvt. Holdiman was promoted and became Corporal Holdiman.

On June 6, 1944, the day the Allies waded ashore on the beaches at Normandy, Holdiman and the rest of the men of the 7th Armored Division embarked aboard the SS Queen Mary in New York harbor for a fast trip across the Atlantic to England. After final training in England, they boarded landing craft bound for Normandy, the division going ashore on Omaha and Utah Beaches, Aug. 13-14. Once ashore, they were assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s newly activated U.S. Third Army.

Sherman tank

U.S. Army M4 Sherman tank.

As part of Patton’s breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the division drove through Nogent-le-Rotrou to take Chartres on Aug. 18, then on Verdun, and finally across the Moselle River.

In late September, the 7th Armored Division was tasked with supporting Operation Market Garden, the combined arms invasion of the Netherlands recounted in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” From Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, they fought in the Battle for Overloon and from Oct. 7-26 were in action around Griendtsveen and patrolling around Ell-Weert-Meijel-Deurne, before they were engaged in the Battle of the Canals starting Oct. 27.

In a tank battle on Oct. 29 against the German 9th Panzer Division a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire while Company C was supporting an infantry push. He was killed in action, along with the rest of the crew (which was one man short, the assistant gunner position), 2nd Lt. Robert W. Denny, the tank’s commander; loader and machine gunner Pvt. Michael Ferris; and Tec 4 Leo W. Goers, the tank’s driver.

According to the after action report concerning Company C filed by the 17th Tank Battalion about the action on Oct. 29: “This Company did an excellent job but they lost Lt. DENNY who had just recently been Commissioned from the ranks, he had previously been a Platoon Sergeant in the same Company, Lt. DENNY was an excellent leader and his loss is a great loss to the Company. “C” Company lost four tanks in this action and they definitely knocked out five German Tanks.”

Holdiman tombstone

Corporal Elwyn Holdiman’s memorial on the Holdiman family marker in Lincoln Memorial Park, Oswego Township.

Elwyn’s parents, Albert and Hazel Holdiman, were first notified that he was missing in action before they finally learned he had been killed. While his remains were buried in Europe, the family erected a marker in the memory of his sacrifice in Oswego Township’s Lincoln Memorial Park.

And the fact that the Holdiman name sounded familiar to me? It turned out that Elwyn and I are third cousins—I remembered the name from my family history. My great-great grandfather’s sister, Catherine Lantz, married Joseph Holdiman. They were Elwyn’s great-grandparents.

Strangely enough, Holdiman’s sacrifice was not commemorated, as were the ultimate sacrifices of virtually every other local soldier and sailor.

But we’ve gone a bit towards rectifying our own oversight, as well as that committed by anyone else since that day in late October 1944 when Elwyn Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by German gunfire. And in so doing, we’ve uncovered another piece of the history of the Oswego area that, hopefully, won’t be forgotten again.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Uncategorized

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, Environment, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Science stuff, Transportation

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.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Leave a comment

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