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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

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

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

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

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

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

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

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo at Midewin

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

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

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

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

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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The long, successful, battle against the scourge of smallpox…

So our President-elect has announced plans to appoint someone who opposes vaccinations to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. “Anti-vaxxers,” as they’re called these days, have been trying to gain momentum for their view that vaccinating children is dangerous.

The medical profession, of course, takes a very dim view of this. Here in the Fox River Valley of Illinois, at least one large clinic group—and maybe all of them for all I know—have told parents that if they refuse vaccinations they can find another clinic to take their children to.

It wasn’t so long ago that vaccines were seen as lifesavers, medical miracles that people simply didn’t refuse. That’s because vaccinations eliminated a variety of childhood killers like polio and other communicative diseases like measles and smallpox that annually killed thousands of people.

Back in the first half of the 19th Century, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about—wild animals, starvation—Kendall County’s pioneers also had to worry about disease. A lot. When they wrote in a letter to a friend or relative that they were in good health it wasn’t a meaningless phrase. Because during the pioneer era, and right up through World War II, getting sick didn’t just put a crimp in peoples’ styles; it all too often killed them.

A dismayingly large number of really serious epidemics regularly broke out in those days. And rich or poor, disease killed far more than warfare or any other cause. Not that serious illness still isn’t a problem, of course. Each year, as many as 56,000 U.S. residents die of the flu. But in times past, that many might die within a couple weeks from Asiatic cholera, typhoid, or smallpox.

Of the three, smallpox was the most regular, and most certain and feared, killer.

Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. During the early Middle Ages Arabs were the premier medical researchers and practitioners in the world. Although some might find it surprising, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.

From the 6th Century on, frequent European smallpox epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance and even immunity to the disease that slowly forced the death rate down to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Nevertheless, during the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.

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England’s Queen Mary II was one of a number of royals who died of smallpox over the centuries.

Even royalty was not immune to the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.

Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America with them, and they proved more deadly than gunpowder weapons. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European colonists.

Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived. In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol. A king couldn’t be too venturesome with this medical technology stuff, after all, who’d miss a few charity kids anyway?

gen-george-washington

After smallpox struck the Continental Army in 1776, Gen. George Washington ordered the smallpox vaccination of the entire army in 1777.

Although inoculation was known, and known to work, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000 man force come down with the disease. As a result, General George Washington ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox in 1777. British soldiers, many of whom had been exposed as children, suffered far less mortality.

Then in 1796, Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects. Even so, epidemics continued to strike. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the upper Missouri River killed 15,000 Native Americans, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.

Here in the Fox Valley, settlers arrived starting in the late 1820s, and smallpox wasn’t far behind. In 1845 an epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing back home to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe. I was at Oswego one week ago today & found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”

calamity-jane

Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Canary made her first mark in history nursing smallpox patients during a Deadwood, South Dakota epidemic.

Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”

On June 16, 1881, the Kendall County Record laconically reported: “Five cases of small-pox in Joliet.” And on Dec. 29 of the same year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that a former Oswego resident had died due to the sickness: “From the daily papers we learned that Mrs. John Hinchman of Chicago has lately died from small pox and in a condition uncommonly sad.” In late January of 1882, Record Editor John Marshall published the alarming news that “Small-pox is raging in Braidwood, Will county.”

In June, 1884, a major smallpox epidemic broke out in downtown Yorkville. Public officials and the community’s doctors battled it with quarantines and vaccinations, and it quickly burned itself out.

One of the last local smallpox scares—as opposed to an actual epidemic—took place in January 1891. According to the Record, a woman traveling to Chicago by rail through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be small pox. A small community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed. But within a day or so, the woman’s problem was found to be a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.

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Isaac and Ellen Tripp pause for a photograph about 1910 at the NaAuSay Township farm they were renting. Norval (right) and Kenneth both contracted, but survived, smallpox in their late teens.

Another local outbreak of smallpox was reported in the May 22, 1918 Record, where the correspondent wrote: “Oswego has had and is having the prevailing epidemic, one more being added when last week Miss Mary Goodendorf was put under quarantine with smallpox. There are now five cases in that and the George Denman family.” A year later, in May 1919, both of Isaac Tripp’s sons, Norval and Kenneth, came down with smallpox. Both recovered after a fairly long convalescence.

The last case of smallpox in Kendall County I’ve been able to find involved Oswego resident O.L. Knight, who made a trip to St. Louis on business in April 1929, where he was exposed to smallpox, bringing it home with him. Both he and his wife—who worked at the Oswego telephone exchange—were quarantined for a month. Mrs. Knight survived without catching the pox from her husband and Mr. Knight fully recovered.

The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease. But fears generated by biological warfare rumors, not to mention the new reluctance to vaccinate are making some wonder what would happen if smallpox was ever unleashed on the world again.

 

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Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

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

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

modern corn harvest

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

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

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

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

Ancient corn

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

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

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

cahokia-c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Despite our best efforts to kill it, the Fox River just keeps on rolling along…

One of Kendall County’s most valuable natural assets is it’s surprisingly extensive system of waterways.

The Fox River is, of course, the most dominant waterway in the county. The river enters the county in northwestern Oswego Township and then cuts diagonally cross county, running along the border between Oswego and Bristol townships, similarly along the Bristol-Kendall Township line and then into Little Rock Township and through Fox Township before exiting the county and heading southwesterly into LaSalle County.

The other major system of waterways in the county is the Aux Sable watershed. In terms of area within the county’s bounds, the Aux Sable watershed is actually the county’s largest, since it drains all or parts of six of Kendall County’s nine townships.

That Kendall has two major drainage basins separated by what the voyageurs used to call a “height of land,” is a rarity for such a small county. Thanks to that accident of geography, more than half the county’s surface waters drain directly into the Illinois River via the large Aux Sable system while the rest of the county drains through the Fox River watershed.

The Fox River’s watershed includes most of the county’s largest creeks, including Big Rock and Little Rock creeks, Rob Roy Creek, Blackberry Creek, Waubonsie Creek, and Morgan Creek.

indians-fishing

The county’s earliest residents, Stone Age Native American hunters and their families, found that the area’s numerous waterways made it a nice place to live. Those earliest inhabitants lived around the lakes, sloughs, and swamps left behind as the last glaciers retreated because game was abundant in those areas, as were many other necessities of life. Camp and village sites dating back thousands of years found overlooking the county’s waterways and wetlands show that those early residents depended on streams for clams and other invertebrates and fish, on swamps and sloughs for small and big game, and on rich bottomland for edible plants, from nuts and berries to wild grain, that could easily be gathered in abundance.

After European explorers arrived, the lifestyles of local Native Americans changed as they gathered materials to trade for brass pots, iron and steel axes, woolen blankets, linen cloth, brandy and run, firearms, and silver ornaments and glass beads. The area’s waterways proved even more valuable in that new mode of life, as local tribesmen trapped beaver, muskrat, fox, and other fur-bearing animals whose skins were sent back to Europe in trade for items that quickly became necessities.

In those days, the various branches of the Aux Sable (French for “Sandy Water”) were important geographical references, and were referred to as landmarks in several major treaties between the U.S. Government and the Indian tribes living in northern Illinois.

By the time the first permanent white settlers arrived along the banks of the Fox River in the 1820s, fur-bearing animals were nearly extinct and game in general was scarce due to over-hunting and over-trapping. In fact, the earliest Kendall County settlers found they had to import food to what had once been one of the richest natural areas on Earth.

fox-mill-on-hollenbacks-creek

According to this survey map, a sawmill was located at the mouth of Hollenback Creek in Fox Township in 1838, illustrating that even some of the smallest creeks in the Fox River’s watershed were harnessed to power mills.

Waterways proved just as important to the economics of early settlers as they had to Native Americans, although in far different ways. The settlers quickly harnessed the power of the county’s waterways through the construction of dams. The resulting water power was put to work turning mill wheels to grind corn and other grain and to saw the wood needed to build homes for the area’s fast-growing population. Virtually every substantial stream in the county—and even some insubstantial ones—boasted a mill of some kind at some time or another. And the Fox River itself eventually became dotted with dams along its length through Kendall County that provided water power for many more mills.

With the tribes gone (all Indians were removed from Northern Illinois in 1836), game slowly recovered, although the buffalo never returned to Illinois after it was wiped out about 1800 by a combination of over-hunting for skins and vicious winters.

Within a few generations, however, the newly recovered big and small game was again decimated by over-hunting. It has only recently began to recover relatively recently once again as fewer and fewer county residents hunt and trap during the winter months and as development has made hunting either inappropriate, unwelcome, or downright dangerous.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

This group of youngsters was captured in a photograph around 1910 fishing in Waubonsie Creek near downtown Oswego. By then, the county’s two main watersheds was already badly polluted by homes, farms, and businesses.

Settlement also meant extreme changes in water quality for the county’s streams. Kendall County’s once-clear and cool streams were slowed by dams, choked by silt, and poisoned by fertilizer and other chemicals running off of cultivated fields. After the settlement era, the Fox River in particular became a dumping ground for growing industries upstream in Kane County and for human waste from virtually everywhere else in the river’s drainage basin. By the 1950s, the river and many of the county’s creeks had become little more than cesspools with currents.

But beginning in the 1970s, word on cleaning up the county’s streams began, thanks to federal clean water regulations, without which most of our streams would be open sewers still. Today, the Fox River is prized for its smallmouth bass fishery and the once-rare wildlife it attracts and nurtures. The City of Aurora even uses it for drinking water, and Oswego, Montgomery, and Yorkville are talking about doing that, too.

But Kendall County has yet, I think, to realize how valuable a resource the river and its tributaries is and how valuable it could be. The good news, I guess, is that at least we’ve at least temporarily quit trying to kill the river and its tributaries. The bad news is it took the federal government to make us do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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