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Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “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,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.


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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

No Kohl’s, Walmart, or Target. Where did the pioneers get their clothes?

Three imperatives drove the pioneers as they moved ever westward from the Atlantic Coast: Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.

The earliest pioneers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains lived a subsistence-level existence, making and growing virtually everything they needed for their own survival. In fact, they didn’t live that much differently from the Native People they were steadily displacing.

They farmed and hunted for food for themselves and their livestock, built their homes and outbuildings from the timber growing in the dense forests of the east and southeast, and made their own clothing from flax and wool they raised on their small farms, as well as from the hides of animals they raised and hunted.

Cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River created a true harbor that led to the city’s explosive growth.

By the time settlement began accelerating here in the Fox River Valley and the rest of northern Illinois, the old frontier lifestyle had begun phasing out. The settlers who arrived here starting in the early 1830s were a different breed from the hard-bitten Daniel Boone types that had settled the timbered regions. For the most part, these settlers on the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and spread westerly all the way across the Mississippi River were experienced farmers, used to selling the livestock and crops their farms produced for profit.

They arrived at a propitious moment in history. By 1834, U.S. Army engineers had finally pushed a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating a true stormproof harbor at Chicago. That meant ships could arrive and take time to safely offload cargo, seek repairs, resupply their crews, and the other things found in Great Lakes ports. Chicago’s harbor, coupled with New York’s Erie Canal opened Illinois’ prairie farming market to the rest of the nation. In 1833, only four ships had called at Chicago. In 1834, with the development of its harbor, 176 vessels arrived, with the numbers exponentially increasing after that.

For the most part, the Fox Valley’s early settlers didn’t lack for shelter as log cabins quickly gave way to homes built of sawmill produced lumber. By the mid-1840s, lumber for prairie farm homes was being shipped into Chicago from forests in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Likewise, food was relatively abundant, produced locally and imported.

But what about clothing? Ready-made clothing wasn’t available for a decade or two after the settlers began arriving in large numbers here along the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines rivers. So where did the pioneers’ clothes come from?

Our picture of early settlers, colored by Hollywood movies, has settlers dressed in fringed buckskin, but that era was long gone by the time settlers began arriving on the tallgrass prairie. It turns out buckskin just isn’t very comfortable to wear; it gets positively slimy when wet and dries hard. Native People switched to cloth clothing as soon as traders began offering fabric and blankets as fur trade items.

Fiber Folklore – Hateful Flax Spinning | Dances with Wools
Producing flax suitable for spinning was an extremely labor-intensive process. Then the fibers had to be spun into linen thread with more labor, and the thread then woven into cloth.

And in any case, by the time of settlement deer had become increasingly rare in northern Illinois due to the trade in hides and furs.

Some of the earliest settlers made their own fabric from their farms’ patches of flax and from the wool produced by their own sheep. But making linen from flax plants is an extremely labor-intensive task that requires growing the plants and then laboriously processing the stalks before the fibers can be spun into thread. Manufacturing cloth from wool grown on the farm is far less difficult, but still time consuming.

And by the time settlement was really accelerating in the early 1840s, that harbor at Chicago was one of the busiest in the whole nation, bringing every sort of thing people needed, including tons of cloth manufactured in the woolen and cotton mills of New England. So it quickly became a lot cheaper in terms of time spent to buy cloth for clothing than to make it at home.

But cloth still had to be turned into clothing. Most of that was, of course done at home. Needlework was a major home craft of wives and daughters of the era. But they didn’t make all of the clothing of the era and that left niches for men’s tailors and women’s dressmakers.

James Sheldon Barber came west to Oswego with a wagon train of his neighbors from Smyrna, New York in late 1843. As a single man, he had neither the time nor the skills to make his own clothing, although he indicated he was able to make repairs. Clothing was not cheap. In February 1844, just a couple months after he arrived, he wrote back to his mother in Smyrna: “I have not bought any clothes yet but the prices of making is a trifle higher here than there.  There coat $4 to $8, pants 1 to $2. Vest 1 to $2. Shirts like these you make for me 3 shillings; Socks 2 shillings to 3 shillings.”

Lorenzo Rank was one of six tailors working in Oswego in 1850 according to the U.S. Census of that year. Rank went on to become the community’s long-time postmaster and local columnist for the Kendall County Record. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the area expanded, the number of single men who needed clothes as well as families who didn’t have the time to make their own clothes grew as well. By 1850, nine tailors were doing business in Oswego—then the Kendall County Seat.

But just 20 years later, according to the 1870 U.S. Census of Oswego, only one tailor and two dressmakers were doing business in Oswego. What happened?

One major impact seems to have been the development of the first practical sewing machines for home use. Isaac Singer had patented his first machine in 1851, something he continued to improve in conjunction with other inventors and sewing machine company owners. Singer was a typical robber baron of the era, once remarking, “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after.” But his invention did, indeed, revolutionize how people obtained their clothing.

Locally, tailors bent with the times. Some began selling what amounted to clothing kits. In the June 20, 1867 Kendall County Record, editor J.R. Marshall noted that a tailor in Plano was offering a new service: “Many of our readers wish to buy cloth by the yard for their clothing, have it cut by a tailor, and made at home. They can be accommodated in this way by Mr. Morley, who has a large stock of cloths on hand, which he sells in any quantity desired and cut it into garments in the most fashionable manner. He asked but a small profit on his cloths. Clothing made to order.”

In the late 1860s, when Mr. Morley was making a buck by selling shirt, pants, and coat kits, only about 25 percent of people’s clothing in the U.S. was readymade. With the growing national economy and improvements in transportation, however, by 1890, 60 percent of the nation’s clothing was readymade and sold in stores, and by 1951, almost all—right around 90 percent—of the nation’s clothing was factory-made and store bought.

Steady improvements in transportation bought the products of the world to Kendall County so that it was soon much cheaper—at least in terms of labor—to buy first cloth and then clothing in local stores than it was to make it. And the revolution in mechanization in the form of sewing machines that made it cheaper for companies to manufacture off-the-rack clothing as well as for clothing to be made at home, had a huge effect on how people obtained their clothing. Another game-changer was the development of mail order firms like Sears and Montgomery Ward, that allowed clothing to be ordered at home and thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, shipped right to consumers’ mail boxes.

It was a trend that’s continued right up through the present day when spinning, weaving, and making clothing at home has turned into a leisure-time craft.

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It’s maple sugaring time…

I was thinking last week that with the cold nights and above-freezing daytime temperatures we were being subjected to this year that the maple sugaring folks must be having a good year. And that got me to thinking about this post I did a decade ago talking about how popular it had once been around these parts. Because it’s not just a Vermont or Wisconsin or Canada thing; maple sugaring was once a huge deal locally as well. So to reflect on those old days, here’s that piece from 10 years ago this month, hoisted from the History on the Fox archives:

Some 20 years ago, my son the Eagle Scout enjoyed helping some local folks demonstrate how maple syrup is made. He volunteered to help keep the fires burning and the sap boiling, he carried sap buckets, and he led tours and explained the process to visitors during annual weekend sugaring events.

On one of those nice spring days out at Waa Kee Sha Park, he had just explained how it took about 50 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup when a mom leading a small gaggle of kids raised her hand to ask, “When do you add the maple flavoring?”

To which my totally nonplussed son had no clever riposte.

We take all sorts of things for granted, not the least of which is the set of basic facts people have at their disposal. But the origin of maple syrup and maple sugar candy is one of those things that apparently not just anybody knows about. Which is a shame because that knowledge is a direct connection to our historical past. Those living history demonstrations that show how maple sap is turned into that wonderful sweet product that tastes so good on French toast help us connect to that history, and a rich one it is.

After European traders arrived on the scene and began providing iron kettles maple sugar and syrup production became a little easier. On the other hand, the effect of the European fur trade led to the destruction of Native Peoples' culture, so it wasn't all good.

After European traders arrived on the scene and began providing iron kettles maple sugar and syrup production became a little easier. On the other hand, the effect of the European fur trade led to the destruction of Native Peoples’ culture, so it wasn’t all good.

Maple sugar and syrup was a valuable food and trade item long before European settlers arrived. Native people in North America tapped maple trees, and collected and boiled maple sap into that wonderful food item using bark buckets to fill hollow log tubs, which they kept boiling by dumping in a succession of red hot rocks.

The brass and iron kettles French, Dutch, and English traders supplied in return for prime winter beaver pelts helped increase production to the extent that one eight-person group in 1764 spent a month in a sugaring camp tapping 700 trees, gathering more than 13,700 gallons of sap, and producing nearly a ton of maple sugar and 36 gallons of maple syrup.

When American settlers arrived out here in the western Great Lakes region starting in the late 1820s, they emulated the Native People’s production of maple products, tapping trees, gathering sap, and boiling it down into sugar and syrup. By that time, it was a tradition the pioneers brought with them when they left their homes in New England and the Middle Colonies and headed west to settle the Illinois prairies.

When they arrived they found numerous groves of hardwoods. On the west side of the region’s watercourses, those groves were largely comprised of Burr and White Oaks and other fire-resistant species, because the spring and autumn fires that roared across the prairies were pushed towards the east by the prevailing westerly winds tended to kill off less fire-resistant species. On the more protected east sides of watercourses, such as the Fox River, the groves were of more mixed hardwoods, with some oaks, but also of walnuts, and most importantly, sugar maples.

In those early pioneer days, maple sugar was about the only sugar available. Honey was rare until honeybees—which were not native—built up their populations. Cane sugar was extremely expensive, when it was available at all.

The surveyors who mapped the region in the late 1830s noted the prevalence of those valuable sugar maples, identifying them simply as “sugar trees.” Kendall County settlers quickly made good use of the dense stands of maples in Big Grove, Long Grove, AuSable Grove, and Specie Grove (AuSable and Specie groves are actually a single grove bisected by Morgan Creek). The spring trip to sugar camps—called sugar bushes—was an almost instant tradition.

Fires were maintained under the kettles and pans 24 hours a day as the amber syrup was boiled down from maple sap.

This painting by American artist Jonathan Eastman Johnson, titled "The Maple Sugar Camp Turning Off," illustrates the social aspect of maple sugaring in the 1870s.

This painting by American artist Jonathan Eastman Johnson, titled “The Maple Sugar Camp Turning Off,” illustrates the social aspect of maple sugaring in the 1870s.

On April 3, 1873, Kendall County Record Editor John R. Marshall wrote that: “The nice, new maple syrup left at the editor’s house last Thursday by Mr. David Kennedy was a great treat. It was clear and thick.”

It was clear county residents who had sugar bush access knew how to curry Marshall’s favor. On March 23, 1882, he observed that: “The Record boys indulged in some nice maple sugar Monday morning, direct from Deacon Sleezer’s sap-bush in Big Grove. If the ‘Boys’ have a failing for anything, it’s maple sugar.”

Long Grove was one of the closest sugar bushes to Yorkville where Marshall published the Record and kindly maple grove owners kept him in the good stuff. As he noted in the Record’s March 29, 1893 edition: “Pure maple syrup from the old Long Grove sugar camp is not bad eating with a good warm biscuit or cakes.”

By the late 1890s, cheap manufactured cane and beet sugar had become common in Kendall County households, and even maple syrup and sugar was being manufactured in huge quantities elsewhere and shipped to grocery stores here. That meant sugaring was becoming less common, although there were still some fairly big operations here where the tradition was maintained.

In March 1898, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent waxed nostalgic concerning the maple sugaring tradition in the neighboring Specie and AuSable groves: “It’s a pretty sight to see sugar making in the ‘bush’ at night, with several fires brightly burning among the leafless trees and the weird forms of the sugar makers as they go about their work, and the surrounding darkness all combine to make the scene strangely peculiar and one to be remembered. We have often wondered if people are happier in our advanced and pampered and more genteel way of living than they were in the olden times when they lived nearer to nature and in a more simple and primitive way. We have often heard our parents and old people tell of the various kind of ‘bees’ they used to have for haying and harvesting, logging and husking, quilting and apple paring, and at sugar time and the great bake ovens and fire places that they had in York State and the East and when we see a couple of men doing all the work now on a large farm we wonder if there is much improvement as far as real happiness is concerned. Usually the most simple things contribute the greatest to our enjoyment.”

Once a common sight in Kendall County's groves, tapping sugar maples is now seen mostly during living history demonstrations.

Once a common sight in Kendall County’s groves, tapping sugar maples is now seen mostly during living history demonstrations.

Despite the economic changes, Specie and AuSable groves remained a substantial maple sugaring area for the next several years. The March 22, 1899 Record reported from Specie Grove that “A new sap evaporator has been purchased by R.G. Leitch and put on the Hall farm for the purpose of converting sap into syrup and sugar. There is a large ‘sugar bush’ on this farm and it will be developed to its fullest capacity this year,” adding two weeks later that “Four hundred maple trees have been tapped on the Evergreen Hill farm. Somebody is going to have ‘lasses.”

With those cheaper alternatives widely available, spring sugaring gradually disappeared from our region. At one time, it was such an important product, however, that the settlers actually named one area community—Sugar Grove—after that activity of “olden times.” Today, like so many of our ancestors’ activities, sugaring in the Fox Valley is mostly only visible in those living history demonstrations like the one my son participated in a couple decades ago and with a few hobbyists who like the maintain the tradition—and love the product their labor produces.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History