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When it came to crime, it really was the “Roaring ’20s” in Kendall County…

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a period of history by its nickname. Sometimes not so much. For instance, the “Gay ‘90s” definitely were not happy and carefree, while the “Roaring ‘20s” definitely were all of that—and more.

The decade of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in the nation’s history. Here in Kendall County, during a period of just a couple weeks, every bank failed and the repercussions drove numerous business owners and farmers into bankruptcy. The balance of the decade, far from the carefree picture in our minds of young women and men riding their bicycles built for two, was a grim climb back to financial solvency.

The “Roaring ‘20s,” on the other hand, were just that. Economic growth was stratospheric (fueled in part by all those World War I Liberty Bonds), newly available economical and dependable automobiles were creating an astonishingly mobile society, and even small town America was seeing a slice of the pie.

But while some areas of the economy were booming—the stock market in particular—other areas definitely were not. The farm depression that followed World War I was deepening, and that had serious effects in largely rural counties like Kendall. In addition, the approval of the 18th Amendment, which took affect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was having a negative effect on small towns that relied on saloon licenses for much of their municipal revenue.

In the case of nationwide prohibition of alcohol, however, the citizenry started to push back almost immediately. The original physical opposition to Prohibition began at the local level; it would take a couple years for crime to become organized enough to take over bootlegging on a big scale.

Here in Kendall County, the Roaring ‘20s kicked off with the robbery of the State Bank of Newark in October. Rural banks had been favorites of robbers for years, but starting in 1920, the means and methods of the crimes began to change, primarily by the addition of automobiles as getaway vehicles. In the Newark case, a familiar face was on hand when the matter got to court. Fred Stuppy had been sent to prison a few years before for his role in robbing the Millbrook bank.

It was suddenly occurring to local officials that they were seriously under equipped to handle what seemed to be a growing wave of crime. Criminals had become more mobile as better roads and better cars came available, and they were often better armed than local constables and sheriffs.

As the Kendall County Record editorialized on Nov. 21, 1920: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Two years later, the General Assembly would create the Illinois State Police to help combat the rising tide of criminality in rural areas.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

Oswego’s Liberty Garage in 1927 after it’s purchase by Earl Zentmyer, who turned it into the village’s Ford dealership. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that local law enforcement wasn’t already trying their best, and sometimes finding themselves in perilous circumstances. In late April 1921, James Joslyn shot and killed West Chicago Chief of Police George Reihm while escaping from the attempted theft of lumber. Joslyn was working on an addition to his house and decided to get the material by robbing a lumber yard, killing Reihm when he got in the way. Joslyn kept one step ahead of the law for the next few months, eventually winding up in Oswego, where he and his wife and small son camped in Watts Cutter’s woods off South Main Street while he worked at the Liberty Garage. Although Joslyn was a good worker, Liberty Garage owner Clyde Lewis became suspicious when Joslyn showed up with a brand new Ford coupe wondering what the best way was to remove the serial numbers from the engine.

Yorkville Creamery

The old Yorkville Creamery where Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell shot it out with James Joslyn in 1921. (Little White School Museum collection)

And that’s where the new telecommunications technology came into play. Calls between Lewis, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell, and the Aurora Police Department convinced Hextell that Joslyn was worth questioning at least. And so with Lewis and deputy Frank Wellman in the car, Hextell headed to Yorkville, where Joslyn had been headed. The sheriff caught up to Joslyn at the old creamery building, and got out of his car just as Joslyn walked up to see who was in the car. Seeing the sheriff, Joslyn backed up, turned, and started to run. Hextell shouted for him to stop and fired a warning shot in the air. At that, Joslyn pulled his own pistol and snapped off a hurried shot at Hextell that nearly clipped the sheriff’s ear. Hextell fired in reply, hitting Joslyn in the side, knocking him down. As Hextell, Lewis, and Wellman approached Joslyn, they heard a shot, finding he’d shot himself in the head rather than suffer arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t until Hextell compared notes with other law enforcement agencies that it was found Joslyn had a lengthy criminal record—including that active warrant for the murder of Reihm.

But beside garden variety gunfights, it was Prohibition that was preying on local minds as enterprising folks attempted to find ways around the new law. In October 1922, Hextell arrested J. Busby at his farm near the Five Mile Bridge between Yorkville and Plano for bootlegging. Explained the Kendall County Record: “When Sheriff Hextell served the search warrant he and his assistants found 24 different varieties of ‘booze,’ ranging from ‘home brew’ to cherry cordial.”

On Jan. 10, 1923, Record publisher Hugh Marshall commended the county’s law enforcement establishment: “Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [speakeasies] within its boundaries.”

As it turned out, Marshall’s congratulations were a bit premature, even as the redoubtable Sheriff Hextell was replaced by the new sheriff in town, George Barkley. I’ll let Marshall tell the story of what happened next as recounted in the March 28 Record:

“Sheriff Barkley and his assistants uncovered one of the biggest stills ever found in this part of the country in one place and a large supply of beer and whisky in another in raids made on Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night the sheriff and posse visited Plano where they searched the sample room of Stanley VanKirk and the sandwich room of his brother, Charles VanKirk, better known as “Bumps.” From these two raids, they garnered 80 cases of beer said to have been made in a Joliet brewery, and 14 quarts of supposed “real” whisky. Sheriff Barkley was assisted by former Sheriff Hextell and State Agents Jack Lecker and Pasnik. They had been working about Plano for two weeks. The two VanKirks were brought to Yorkville, where they were arraigned before Judge Larson on Tuesday pled guilty to the charges and were fined. Charles VanKirk paid $500; Stanly VanKirk, $300, and “Pidge” Robbins, who was arrested with them, stood a $100 levy.

“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.”

Parker, Hawley, Schickler house

Built in 1869 by farmer and business owner George Parker, this ornate Italianate-style home featured a drive-in basement. Later owned by lawyer P.G. Hawley, it was sold to John Schickler, who attempted to run an illegal distilling operation there. (Little White School Museum collection)

While Stan and Bumps VanKirk’s activities didn’t seem to startle anyone too much, the Schickler distilling operation seemed to be a real surprise for local officials. John Schickler was a long-time Oswego businessman and farmer. He built the brick block of stores at the northwest corner of Washington and Main streets in the village’s downtown business district, where he variously operated a saloon and a grocery store. He’d purchased the old Parker-Hawley farm with its huge house that featured a drive-in basement.

Given prohibition, and Schickler’s former career running saloons, he and his son Clarence apparently decided to fulfill a need they figured the community had. John Schickler had always been interested in technology, and had added some of the most up-to-date features to his downtown Oswego building, including a freight elevator and a modern cooler for groceries and meat. So it wasn’t too surprising to see the amount of technology he and Clarence used to distill legal denatured medicinal alcohol into definitely illegal drinking liquor.

In the end, the Schicklers got what amounted to a slap on the wrist and the admonition to go and sin no more, which they apparently took seriously. Unfortunately, they also managed to get the notice of the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reportedly held a cross burning on the front lawn of the Schickler house, something that could have been fueled either by the Schicklers’ bootlegging activities or by the fact that they were Catholics.

John Schickler died in 1931, and Clarence found other things to do. “He was a slot machine king and his wife was a showgirl,” one elderly Oswego resident told me several years ago. Clarence, a few years after the bootlegging adventure, started the Schickler Dairy on the farm, milking 20 cows and housing the bottling operating in same basement where he and his father had distilled bootleg whisky.

At the time law enforcement raided it, the Schicklers’ operation seemed large and sophisticated. But it was paltry by later standards as crime became better organized.

In October 1930, police raided a farm a mile east of Plano and found six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, along with about 4,000 gallons of distilled alcohol, two boilers, and a large amount of yeast. And that was just one of a half-dozen or so operations knocked over during those years.

Despite the hopes of many Americans, the end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t necessarily mean the end of local bootlegging. The biggest haul of federal and local agents took place in October 1936, well after Prohibition ended, as the mob tried to maintain a tax-free supply of alcohol. And the amounts of liquor the operation was about to produce were really astonishing, throwing the Schicklers’ operation back in 1923 definitely in the shade.

Here’s the account from the April 19, 1936 Record:

“Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

“According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the ‘Feds’ on Thursday, April 9.

“The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed ‘the finest plant of its type in this territory.’ The plant was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

“The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this. A wrecking crew from Chicago wrecked the equipment.”

After that, criminals in Kendall County got mostly back to the usual bank robberies and other crimes, including the occasional shoot-out with police.

Too often we read in the paper about some criminal activity or another and think to ourselves how much nicer it would be if we could go back to a simpler time when things weren’t so violent. But the thing is, that time never really existed.

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Exploring the ‘treeless land’ with Jolliet and Marquette

This year, Illinois will celebrate it’s Bicentennial. In December 1818, the U.S. Congress formally approved establishing the State of Illinois. And with its change in status from territory to state, Illinois was finally allowed to send two senators and a representative to represent the state’s people and their interests at the national capitol.

By the time Illinois became a state, Europeans had visited and settled in what the colonial French called the Illinois Country for nearly a century and a half. The first Europeans to arrive in Illinois did so illegally—that is, in violation of the Royal French colonial government’s prohibitions. Those earliest visitors were seeking riches, both mineral and in furs, and they found a bit of both.

The Indian way of life began to change as soon as those European influences began to reach Illinois. Thanks both to trade among the tribes and those hardy French freebooters, European influences reached Illinois well in advance of any permanent settlers.

Jolliet & Marquette map

The route taken by the Jolliet and Marquette expedition of 1673. They were the first Europeans to travel through and report on northern Illinois.

As such items as glass beads and brass cooking pots were traded for furs in the East, they began working their way west through the extensive web of Indian trading routes. Gradually, this trade became formalized, with the great trading nations of the west, the Ottawas and Chippewas, trading the grain and furs of the western tribes to the Iroquois and Hurons of the east for European trade goods.

The role of middleman between the western tribes located around the Great Lakes and the Europeans (primarily Dutch, French, and English) was hotly contested. This economic rivalry brought on a number of wars between the Huron and Iroquois, resulting in the eventual destruction of the Huron Tribe.

The first legal penetration of the area now known as Illinois was made by an exploration group led by Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean Talon, governor of New France, had decided to investigate the reports carried east by French missionaries and traders about a great river to the west of Lake Superior, called “Great Water” or Mississippi, by the Indians.

Talon appointed Jolliet, an experienced mapmaker and explorer, to command an expedition to determine whether this river emptied into the Pacific Ocean. If it did, reasoned Talon, the French would have discovered the long-sought Northwest Passage.

An interpreter familiar with many Algonquian dialects was considered necessary for the expedition, and to fill this post Talon and Jolliet picked a studious intellectual Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette—at the time the expedition left, Marquette could speak six different Indian languages. Just as importantly, Marquette was easily available. His regular post was at the Mission of St. Ignace at Michilimackinac, located on the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, the major crossroads of the western fur trade.

Jolliet

A sculptor’s vision of geographer and explorer Louis Jolliet.

The exploration party, consisting of Jolliet, Marquette and five French voyageurs in two canoes, left the strait between the two lakes on May 17, 1673—345 years ago this month—and set a course down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. At the Bay, the party turned up the Fox River to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

As the party traveled south, Jolliet became convinced that hopes the mighty river’s course did not lead southwesterly to Gulf of California, offering a transcontinental passage to the Pacific Ocean as had been hoped. Instead, his navigational observations affirmed the Mississippi bore almost straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, upon reaching the Arkansas River in July, the party reversed its course and headed north once again. They were also encouraged on this course because the Indian villages around the Arkansas River’s mouth were in possession of Spanish trade goods, and given the small size of the French expedition, the last thing they wanted to do was get involved with hostile Spanish colonials.

So back up the Mississippi they paddled. When the explorers reached the mouth of the Illinois River, they decided to ascend it to Lake Michigan, probably on the recommendation of a friendly group of Indians who probably suggested the route as a shortcut back to the lake. They therefore became the first Europeans to see the rich Illinois River Valley, and their opinion of it was very favorable.

Noted Jolliet in an account written after the trip:

“At first, when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country savaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, for vines, or for any other fruit whatever.

“The river, which we named for Saint Louis, which rises near the lower end of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan], seemed to me the most beautiful place; the most suitable for settlement…There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent…A settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plow into the ground.”

Although he didn’t realize it, Jolliet’s words would be echoed a century and a half later in emigrants’ guidebooks luring pioneers to the Illinois prairies.

At the time the party traveled through the Illinois River Valley, the Illinois Indians were in the process of moving to the upper reaches of the river in large numbers The Indians’ village of Kaskaskia was located across from Starved Rock and numbered some 74 cabins in 1673. By the next year, the village had grown to 100-150 cabins. In 1677, Marquette’s Jesuit colleague Father Claude Jean Allouez reported that the village had grown to 351 cabins.

The reports of the Jolliet-Marquette expedition, as well as those of such missionaries as Father Allouez, were clear testaments to the richness of the Illinois River Valley. And the reports of large concentrations of Indians living in the area seemed to make it an ideal location for a centralized trading post to cater directly to the Indians, thus removing the Iroquois, Ottawa, and Chippewa middlemen from the profit equations of the French fur traders.

It would take a strong man with the right connections to make this move, but in 1666, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle had arrived in New France, burning with the desire to make his fortune. It was a case of the right man being on the scene at the right time.

 

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Spring planting a tradition around these parts for millennia

Spring planting is about ready to begin once again on the Illinois prairie, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago.

The first American pioneer farmers arrived here in the Fox River Valley area in the late 1820s. But the region’s Native People had already been farming for thousands of years by the time those first settlers arrived.

Most experts previously believed that agriculture in what is now the continental U.S. was imported from Mexico, along with the trinity of subtropical crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. What is now accepted, after decades of archaeological work, is that the eastern United States is one of about ten regions in the world to become independent centers of agricultural origin.

The initial four plants known to have been domesticated by those earliest, pre-maize prehistoric farmers were goosefoot, sunflowers, marsh elder, and squash. Several other species of plants were subsequently added to the list of domesticated wild plants.

After 200 BCE when maize—corn—from Mexico was introduced into what is now the eastern United States, the Native People of the present-day United States and Canada soon stopped growing domesticated varieties of native plants, switching to an agricultural economy based on growing fields of maize complimented by beans and squash. As that evolution took place, the cultivation of domesticated native plants declined until it was almost wholly abandoned, and the domesticated native plants quickly reverted to their wild forms.

Cultivating Crops

Native People began cultivating and modifying native plants thousands of years ago.

Horticulture intensified in the Woodland period, and most Native American populations began living in villages near their fields. In about AD 800, corn and beans reached the Mississippi Valley, and by about AD 1000, the Mississippian culture that relied on corn, beans, and squash was established in Alabama.

Squash of the Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana variety is considered to be one of the first domesticated native plants in the Eastern Woodland region, having been found in use here some 7,000 years ago. However, it doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly domesticated until around 3,000 years ago.

That earliest variety of squash was originally raised for its edible seeds, and used for small containers (gourds) when dried. Squash with edible flesh came quite a bit later.

Other edible native plants domesticated by the region’s Native People included little barley, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers.

These edible plants are often divided by those studying the subject into “oily” and “starchy” categories. Oily edible seeds are produced by sunflowers and sumpweeds, while erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive Japanese cousin) and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starchy. Maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that produce grains that may be ground to make flour, are also starches.

So how have we discovered all this new information? According to the most recent findings by archaeologists, humans were already collecting native edible plants by 6,000. Then Native People discovered by could modify them by selective breeding and cultivation. Archaeologists confirmed that process in the 1970s when they began noticing significant differences in seeds, burned and otherwise, collected in Native Peoples’ village sites, especially when those seeds were compared to their counterparts still growing in the wild. When carefully studied, the seeds collected in village sites were not only larger, but they were also easier to separate from their shells, husks, or chaff. It was those comparisons that led archaeologists to conclude ancient farmers had begun manipulating the genetics of wild plants by selective breeding much longer ago than previously thought.

One of the major regions where these successful efforts at ancient agriculture flourished is right here in the middle Mississippi River Valley, stretching from Memphis in the south to St. Louis in the north in a belt roughly 300 miles on either side of the river in the current states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

So far, the oldest-known archaeological site in the United States where ancient people have been found to be purposefully growing—rather than gathering—food is the Phillips Spring site in Missouri. At Phillips Spring, dating from 3,000 BCE, Archaeologists have found large numbers of walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, grapes, elderberries, ragweed, bottle gourd, and the seeds of a gourd that produces edible seeds that is the ancestor of pumpkins and most squashes. The gourd seeds found at the site were significantly larger than the wild variety, leading archaeologists to determine the plants’ genetics had been purposefully manipulated by native farmers who selected, planted, and then carefully tended the seeds that produced ever larger and more nutritious seeds. And eventually, continual genetic manipulation led to the gourds producing edible flesh as well.

Marsh elder is one of the many native plants ancient Native People domesticated for use as food before the introduction of maize–corn–an import from Mexico.

By 1800 BCE, Native People considered part of the Late Archaic cultural tradition in our region of the United States were cultivating a number of different plants. At the Riverton Site near downstate Palestine, IL in Crawford County, archaeologists have excavated one of best-known sites that illustrate the ancient people’s cultivation and domestication of native plants. At the Riverton Site, 10 dwelling houses have been excavated and studied, suggesting a village with a population of between 50 and 100 people. The fire hearths and storage pits excavated turned out to include a large number of plant remains. Among those remains were large numbers of seeds goosefoot, also called lamb’s quarters that the scientists determined came from cultivated and domesticated plants. They reached this conclusion because some of the seeds had husks only a third as thick as the plants’ wild varieties, making them much easier to process into food after harvesting.

As the years passed into the Middle Woodland cultural tradition, gardeners continued to cultivate and improve squash and gourds as Archaic Indians had done, but they also domesticated several other native plants that are considered to be weeds today. Building on their knowledge of Illinois’ native plants, Middle Woodland people began to establish gardens of goosefoot, marsh elder, little barley, maygrass, and other varieties of squash. Each autumn, they saved seeds from the best of the plants growing in their fields and then planted them when spring rolled around again. Eventually, these Native People became increasingly committed to particular plots of land and created a way of life organized around both wild and domesticated plants.

But change, in the form of maize, was just over the horizon. Strangely enough, though, as well as we know maize—we’ve been cultivating it around these parts for many hundreds of years now—we know very little about its origin. Many of those trying to figure out where it came from have fingered a grass named teosinte as the ancestor of modern corn. But there’s a fairly serious problem: Teosinte does not have a cob. This has led some of those looking into the mystery to suggest corn’s ancestor was some other wild grass that has now disappeared entirely.

Researchers Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, suggest in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica that: “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

One problem is, however, that this “wild form” of corn has never been found in either the historical or archaeological record.

Another significant problems is there is no evidence that the early peoples of the Americas ever used or harvested teosinte. Finally, it has been theorized for a long time now that the Maya of Central and South America had cultivated and crossbred teosinte into maize. But no evidence has ever been discovered of this, either.

About all archaeologists and plant scientists have been able to nail down is that maize quickly became the most important staple grain in ancient Mexico. Ziz maize suddenly appeared about 4800 BCE on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco, Mexico, for instance. But there are no known wild specie of it in that area, suggesting it was imported, even at that early date, from somewhere else. After its abrupt appearance, the cultivation and genetic enhancement of maize became the focus of ancient American farmers.

But while maize quickly became the most important food grain for ancient peoples beans weren’t far behind. According to most current evidence, beans were originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala—the same areas where Zia maize was developed. The really neat thing about the beans those ancient farmers crossbred and improved so long ago is that beans’ proteins naturally complement the proteins in maize. Beans, it turns out, produce the acids lysine and tryptophan that nicely complement the amino acid zein from maize.

So with the invention of corn and beans, two of the legs of the Native Peoples’ Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—were in place where they joined the third leg that had already been undergoing genetic breeding for thousands of years.

2017 planting corn in Illinois

In another month and a half, area farmers will once again be looking to start planting corn and beans–just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Although it’s pretty obvious the methods they’ll be using this year have undergone some changes.

It took a while, but gradually maize and its complimentary beans spread north into the Mississippi River Valley, where its cultivation quickly displaced growing the region’s domesticated crops. Corn, beans, and native squash and other gourds caused the abandonment of the old, locally developed, strains of little barley, lambsquarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers, and the reversion of the cultivated strains of those plants to their native states.

Now, many centuries after corn and beans made their way north of their native Mexico and Central America, they still make up the bulk of the fields farmers in the Fox Valley plant. Granted, today’s soybeans are a strain developed in Asia, where they were being grown as long ago as 7000 BCE. It has always seemed ironic to me that our modern soybeans were developed by the descendants of some of the same people who crossed the land bridge to North America tens of thousands of years ago to become the people who also invented corn. All of which is nice historic and prehistoric symmetry, don’t you think?

 

 

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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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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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