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Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

It’s open water year round these days on the Fox River

Drive south on Ill. Route 25 along the Fox River from the Kane County line during the coldest winter months and you won’t help but notice that the farther you travel into Kendall County the more the amount of ice on the river increases.

Granted, the river from the Montgomery dam south to Oswego is generally swift moving and dotted with small rapids, but swift-flowing water isn’t the reason the Fox doesn’t freeze over, because it used to just a few decades ago.

So what’s the reason for the open water until you nearly reach Yorkville?

The main answer seems to be that the largest tributaries of the Fox River these days are not those creeks, springs, and wetlands created by the last Ice Age. Instead, we are the river’s largest tributaries—the men, women, and children who live in the Fox Valley.

When the 18th Century ended, it was less than three decades until the first permanent white settlers arrived in the Fox Valley. As 1799 turned into 1800, the river’s largest tributaries were the creeks that drained thousands of acres of wetlands that dotted the river valley from Wisconsin to the mouth of the Fox on the Illinois River. In Kendall County, the largest of these subsidiary streams were, from north to south, Waubonsie Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Big Rock Creek.

Most of these creeks were the main outlets for large wetlands. Waubonsie Creek, for instance, drained the Wabausia Swamp on the Kane-Kendall County border, a wetland that covered nearly a square mile. Morgan Creek, too, drained extensive wetlands that were the remains of a former glacial lake.

Both north and south, other smaller and larger streams and springs added their flows to the river.

During the winter months, the water that seeped and flowed into the river from its bordering wetlands and tributary creeks was cold, having been pre-cooled as it slowly made its way to the river.

1915 abt Drainage

One of the many rural drainage projects was this 24″ tile draining wetlands along Wolf’s Crossing Road into Waubonsie Creek about 1911. This particular project was dug by hand. (Little White School Museum collection)

As soon as the settlers arrived, they began to wage war on the Fox Valley’s expansive wetlands. Over a 50-year period, they aggressively drained marshland and channelized streams, the former to create more farmland and the latter to drain stormwater into the river as quickly as possible to stop nearby farmland from flooding. Their efforts were extremely effective, even given that all the earliest drainage work was completed by animal power and hand labor. By the start of the 20th Century, drainage efforts continued, now assisted by steam-powered dredges.

The result was the addition of additional tillable land, and the elimination of wetlands that were homes to hordes of disease-carrying insects. Drying up the county’s numerous marshes and sloughs led to a precipitous decline in the occurrence of malaria—called “the ague” by the settlers.

But a major unintended consequence of all those drainage efforts was that they not only sharply decreased the summer and winter flows of the river, but they also led to more frequent flooding. That’s because the stormwater “banks” created by the county’s wetlands and meandering streams were eliminated. Instead of runoff trapped in sloughs and marshes slowly soaking in to recharge ground water supplies and be slowly discharged over a period of weeks following rainstorms or snow melt, the runoff was rapidly channeled into the Fox River where it flowed downstream to the Illinois River. When dry months arrived, there was no water “bank” to add to the river’s flows, and it nearly dried up during some dry periods.

In addition, the velocity of the water from the Fox’s tributaries greatly increased due to the elimination of meanders in the streams—channelization—and the disappearance of the wetlands that once slowed the speed of stormwater runoff. That resulted in farmland drying out much more quickly after precipitation fell, but it also resulted in more erosion, with the area’s incredibly rich topsoil washing into the fast-flowing channelized streams. The fast-flowing muddy water caused major flooding far more frequently.

Fox Metro plant

The Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s sprawling wastewater treatment plant between Montgomery and Oswego is today a major Fox River tributary.

And then, as the 19th Century ended, a new sort of tributary started adding to the river’s flows, this one far from the crystal clear water that was once generated by wetlands and meandering creeks. In the early decades of the 20th Century, it finally became apparent, that simply dumping raw sewage, from human waste to industrial products, didn’t get rid of the problem; it just moved it downstream. The human, animal, and industrial waste pumped directly into the river began to be treated to greater or lesser degrees as recognition of the dangers of pollution became clearer, and as wastewater treatment technology advanced.

With the Fox Valley’s population growth, the increasing volume of body temperature sewage began raising the river’s temperature, but at first there wasn’t enough inflow volume to noticeably affect it. As late as the late 1960s, the river regularly froze over all the way from Aurora south to Yorkville. When I was in high school in the early 1960s, we regularly ice skated on the river from Oswego north to Boulder Hill, a distance of three or so miles.

Ice skating on Fox

In about 1920, when this photo was snapped on the frozen Fox River immediately upstream from the Oswego bridge, the river regularly froze over and offered a fine site for community ice skating. (Little White School Museum collection)

But shortly after that, as my friend, Dr. Paul Baumann, pointed out in his 1976 monograph, A Bicentennial History of the Fox River, by the time we celebrated the United States’ 200th birthday, about one-third of the water in the Fox River had already been used at least once by humans or businesses by the time it reached Kendall County.

And then came the Fox Valley’s explosive growth from the 1970s into the first decade of the 21st Century. With that growth, it’s likely the river’s single largest tributary has become the sanitary sewage treatment plants linking the river’s banks. And the relative warmth of that water (it’s slightly warmer, but no less pure than water already in the river thanks to modern wastewater treatment technology) means that nowadays the river seldom freezes between the Fox Valley Water Reclamation District’s huge wastewater treatment plant, located across the river from Boulder Hill, and the pool created behind the Yorkville dam.

Ice Houses

This view of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses north of Oswego, taken about 1890, gives an idea of the size of the company’s ice harvesting operation. (Little White School Museum collection)

As shallow as it is now and historically has been, the Fox River was never a main transportation route, but its dams did provide power for mills, its waters were rich in clams harvested for freshwater pearls and shells for buttons, and in winter its ice was harvested for use in both the home and industry. In fact, huge ice harvesting operations were conducted at each of the dams across the river, including at Yorkville and Oswego. How huge? In 1880, the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice company shipped 581 railcars of ice from Oswego. Of that number, they shipped 124 railcars full of ice from Oswego in August alone. By 1884, the ice company was shipping nearly 1,100 railcars of ice annually.

It’s fortunate cooling technology advanced so far that we don’t require that ice today, because through the impact on the environment of our mere presence here in the Fox Valley, we’ve managed to raise the river’s average temperature so much that it seldom freezes along much of its length in northern Kendall and southern Kane counties.

 

 

 

 

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When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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When sledding was good in the Fox Valley

Time was, we could joke about northern Illinois climate consisting of winter and six weeks of bad sledding. But in recent years, the favorite lament of Midwesterners—until 2017 wrapped up, at least—has been the general lack of an old-fashioned winter.

Historically, that’s been a common complaint. For instance, on Dec. 27, 1916, Kendall County Record Editor H.R. Marshall was pleased to report that, at last, Kendall County was enjoying a fine old-fashioned winter, although modern life was intruding into the enjoyment a bit:

“No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled} go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

A century plus a year later, things are different still. We have occasional cold snaps, as my dad used to call them, but then the weather usually warms, the snow and ice melts. And in recent years it never really returned during late winter.

1922 Trolley & ice skaters @Oswego

Ice skating on the Fox River at the Oswego Bridge about 1922 as the interurban trolley car crosses southbound on its way to Yorkville. In those days, the river froze solid most winters. (Little White School Museum collection)

This winter’s cold snap, however, is proving persistent. The Fox River hardly ever freezes solid between Aurora and Yorkville any more—this year, even as cold as it’s been, is no exception—because it is so warm, and not necessarily due to global warming, either. The major tributaries of today’s Fox River are the municipal sanitary plants that line its banks, pumping out their streams of warm treated wastewater. You can see the results of that by driving along Ill. Route 25 opposite the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s plant in Oswego Township on a cold winter day. Just note the vapor rising from the treated water as it enters the river.

This year, however, not only have we had unusual cold, but we’ve also had a bit of snow as well. The cold arrived earlier in December, followed by a good covering of snow. And then as the New Year arrived, we began experiencing one of those old-fashioned cold snaps that almost made it seem like old times.

Which sort of leads us back to the point about sledding. If sledding was bad during some parts of the year, when was it good?

In those days of yore when I was young and the weather was colder more often, sledding possibilities were many and varied. When we lived out on the farm, we’d trudge what seemed to be miles to an abandoned gravel pit adjacent to our farm and ride our sleds down the nearly vertical slopes.

Besides that, my parents enjoyed having bobsled parties. My dad put his hayrack on a bobsled running gear every winter, hooked up the tractor, and everyone scrambled on board, sitting on bales of hay and straw. Away we went down country roads and farm lanes with everyone having a whale of a good time. The kids hooked their sleds onto the back of the bobsled with ropes and hung on for dear life as the party enjoyed themselves, after which hot chocolate and coffee and my mother’s great desserts capped the evening off.

The Hill horizontal S

The Second Street hill, looking west. The road makes a right-angle curve to the left at the bottom of the hill where Second joins North Adams Street. These days, the road is paved with asphalt.

When we moved to Oswego, bobsled parties were things of the past, but sledding opportunities grew. There was the road off Ill. Route 25 down to our street, for instance. Second Street is still a fairly steep climb today, although it’s paved with asphalt these days and village snowplow crews keep it cleared and well salted.

In the days of my childhood, however, Second Street was gravel, we were in the township, and we were lucky to see a plow for a while after the snow stopped. As a result, the hill’s gravel surface got snow-packed and slippery. All the locals knew you could drive down the hill with reasonable safety, but that most cars and trucks couldn’t make it up the slippery surface, especially since motorists almost always needed to stop at the Route 25 intersection. So traffic on the hill was light when there was snow on the ground.

And us kids quickly realized it made for a great sledding opportunity. You could start at the top and speed down, and if skillful enough, make the sharp turn at the bottom to head south on North Adams Street. A quarter mile distance was not difficult to achieve.

Sledding course

The trick to ensure a long sled ride was making the curve at the bottom of the Second Street hill.

Occasionally, we’d help Mother Nature out a bit by sprinkling water on the street, especially near the top and near the old CB&Q tracks to give us a bit more speed. It wasn’t unheard of for us to build up a bit of a snow bank on the curve where Second met North Adams Street, to allow us to make the curve a bit easier. Very careful and skillful sledders could make the curve at the bottom and head south on North Adams, sometimes all the way to the driveway at my folks’ house.

Motorists, however, did not appreciate our work, and cinders were soon sprinkled to offer a bit of traction for motorists.

We weren’t the only ones who sledded on the streets, either. In an editorial during a snowy winter in December 1952, Oswego Ledger Editor Ford Lippold wrote:

“Several motorists have reported that they had close calls during the past few days with children coasting on the streets. It is hard for motorists to stop quickly even when moving at a snail’s pace on the icy streets of the village.”

One winter, we got a good snowfall, and then it warmed up enough so that a very wet snow covered it, after which it turned very cold once again. That left an icy crust that measured nearly an inch thick on top of the snow, and provided some of the best sledding ever. That winter, we marked out a course that ran from my best friend Glenn’s backyard diagonally all the way to Bill Crimmins’ house. It led to some remarkably speedy trips across the ice, although control was a bit problematical. The most dangerous stretch of the route passed under a grape arbor’s wires. All but one of us were careful to duck our heads as we sped down the course, but he lifted his head at just the wrong time to see if anyone was gaining on him. The resulting gash in his face, and its spectacular amount of blood, spelled the end of our sledding on that course for the rest of the winter.

1940 abt Hall, Levi House Main Street cropped

Nellie Wormley Herren stands outside her ornate home on South Main Street during the winter of 1940. Generations of local kids had great fun coasting on the hill behind her house, where the ground sloped steeply down towards the railroad tracks and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

There were other good sledding spots around town then, near Smith’s Pond, and in Mrs. Herren’s backyard off Main Street to name two off the top of my head.

Kids in Kendall County’s other towns enjoyed the same opportunities during those years of less traffic and fewer parental worries about whether their children were safe from the many challenges of modern life. I imagine almost anyone growing up in Plano or Yorkville or Newark during that era can name their favorite sledding spots, too. For instance, on Jan. 20, 1915, Marshall wrote in the Record about the good sledding on the Bridge Street hill—something that would be suicidal today with Bridge Street’s busy four lanes of traffic:

“While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

So, yes, we really did have good sledding back in the day. Enough to establish a contrast so we knew when it was bad, anyway.

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Snowy winter days create their own sounds, smells, and memories

Despite the effects of climate change on our Illinois winters, it still gives me a warm feeling to sit here in my office, in the house my great-grandparents built as their retirement home, and watch the flakes drift down during an early winter snowfall.

Downtown, children and adults, all dressed in high-tech, down-filled, rip-stop winter clothing hurry along the sidewalks on their way to and from stores and doctors’ and dentist offices. Today’s clothing is lighter and more comfortable and autos and other pieces of necessary machinery are more dependable, but an Illinois winter’s cold, wind, and snow are constants that conjure up memories of winters and holidays past.

1914 Transition Wastington St. winter1914

You can almost hear the sleigh bells ring looking at this image of Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914 during an early winter snowfall. (Little White School Museum photo)

These days, I chiefly recall that era of decades past by its sounds and smells.

The sound of a small boy walking along a snowy lane with corduroy pants and five-buckle boots seemed unnaturally loud during a quiet early morning snowfall. Each step produced a “whoop-clink!” as first one and then another corduroyed leg noisily brushed against its brother with a rough-soft sound punctuated by the boot buckles’ musical jingle.

If the weather was right and the snowflakes were too, the tiny crackle each one made as it landed could be heard—if a sharp young ear was close enough to a winter coat’s arm.

Trudging along a country road, down a deserted village lane, or across a lonely farmstead, a winter day stroller had plenty of time to get off the road when traffic came from behind. The tire chains everyone used for traction in snow and on ice in those days before snowtires and front-wheel drive heralded each car and truck well in advance, as the chained tires squeaked and jingled and jangled through the snow.

1943 Oswego Winter

Snow’s building up fast in this photo snapped at Main and Washington in Oswego at the end of World War II. (Little White School Museum photo)

During a snowstorm, all the regular daytime sounds were muffled by the dense whiteness as it cascaded to the ground, allowing a keen ear to pick out familiar noises only now and then. Here the scrape of a shovel on a concrete drive or walk, there the joyful cry of a sledder on the way down a steep hill. But mostly, it was quiet as even the noisy English Sparrows sat hunched with their feathers fluffed for warmth, waiting for clear flying weather.

A snowstorm, if you’re paying attention, has a smell all its own. It is a sharp, clean scent that puts a person in mind of those stiffly white, freshly freeze-dried bed sheets our grandmothers once gathered in off their clothes lines in deepest January; an aroma that, I am quite sure, certain businessmen would sell their very souls for, could it be bottled and lined up on store shelves.

Out in back of the chicken house, large icicles hung down from the roof, looking for all the world like stalactites hanging from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave. There is a certain unique beauty in a clear, sharply tapering icicle. And nothing seemed quite so warm and wonderful as, while still grasping that freshly-born crystal clear icicle, going in the door of the chicken house, with its heavy smell of feathers and nesting straw complimented by the sounds of chuckling hens.

Heading back to the house pulling a brand new sled, magnificent in its varnished wood and red painted runners, that just the day before were carefully polished with a bit of steel wool and then waxed with the nub of an old candle, it was easy to imagine Arctic explorers or Eskimo hunters or even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon trudging alongside, sharing the adventures and hardships of a long, frozen journey fraught with all manner of dangers. Do you suppose a polar bear smells anything like a tail-wagging dog after she’s had a happy roll in the snow?

1945 abt Dobbin & sled

The Matile family pony, Dobbin, seems resigned to making the best of things after my sisters harnessed him to their sled.

After stamping and sweeping the snow from boots and snow pants, that wonderful kitchen all grandmothers seemed to possess, with all its special wintertime aromas, provided the perfect welcome. The cheery cookstove, all shiny white porcelain and dull black cast iron, warmed the room and provided, back behind and next to the wall, the perfect haven for a slumbering cat curled up in a cardboard box. Huge fresh-baked sugar cookies and fluted-edged molasses cookies, each with three small half-circles indented (creating dark brown smiley faces way before emojis were a gleam in someone’s digital dreams) cooling on the kitchen counter added a sweet smell of sugar and spice all their own.

The scarf was unwound, the hat and mittens removed, the thick winter coat unbuckled and unzipped. Damp mittens were put on the back of the cookstove to dry, adding a moist wool smell to the room.

Somehow, remarkable designs had appeared overnight on the kitchen windows, with mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful scenes outlined in shining frost. Who was this wintertime Picasso and why did he seem to do his finest work on the windows at Grandmother’s house? Jack Frost did it, was the unsatisfactory explanation.

In this day and age, a snowstorm’s quiet is punctuated by the muffled mechanized roar of neighborhood snowblowers and pickup mounted snowplows, but the delighted squeals of snowbound children, sentenced to frolic with sleds and snow saucers for the day, is still also there, provided you’re willing to listen hard and patiently enough.

IMG_1188.JPG

A winter’s snowfall erases all of Mother Nature’s mistakes, as this image of the Matile house proves.

The musical chinking of tire chains is mostly absent these days—at least in this part of the country—and the distinctive sounds made by walkers clad in corduroy pants and five buckle boots have given way to the sleeker sounds of nylon trousers and boots apparently modeled on those worn by Moon-walking astronauts. Unfortunately, our modern double-glazed windows have robbed poor old Jack Frost of his best medium; he must be content these days with fewer and fewer suitable single-pane windows—hardly what the old master deserves.

The constant, even after all these years, is the snow itself, creating a thick, soft white blanket that covers carefully manicured lawns and scarred construction sites alike after our infrequent blizzards during this era of warmer winters. But when those infrequent storms hit and for all our modem, efficient snow clearing equipment, the dense white of modern winter storms still slow our bustling suburban lives to an unwanted– but often secretly enjoyed–walk. The trick is to slow down and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

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Unintended consequences…

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

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

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

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

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

Walleye

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

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

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

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

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

German carp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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