Tag Archives: spring


A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for the Record Newspapers about dandelions and my family’s long association with them. In fact, all the dandelions now growing so happily throughout northern Illinois might be the descendants of plants grown by my pioneer ancestors.

Dandelion CAnyway, in the column I noted that my grandmother used to harvest dandelion greens in the early spring for use at the table. It’s important to get dandelion greens before the plants flower, after which time the greens are not simply sharp tasting, but are downright bitter.

In my family, we served them as a dish similar to wilted lettuce, with a family-concocted sweet/sour sauce served, usually, with some sort of pork product, such as pork chops, pork steak, or ham. I haven’t had dandelion greens for decades, so imagine my surprise when I saw them today for sale in the produce section of our local Meijer store. If I had of a mind to, I could have bought a whole bunch or maybe two to have as the side dish for a meal this week.

If you decide not to click through to the column, here’s the recipe for our family sauce, which works on dandelion greens as well as leaf lettuce as a good compliment for pork:

•One egg, beaten

•1/4 cup vinegar

•1/2 cup half & half

•1/2 cup milk

•2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak

•Salt and pepper to taste

Cook and dice bacon, retain a small amount of pan drippings, mix in other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour over dandelion greens or leaf lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

There’s also dandelion wine, but we won’t get into that right now…



Filed under Food, Illinois History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

Flooding, drought the new normal?

So how was YOUR week?

It was a little damp around the Matile Manse this past week, what with a sudden deluge of more than 5 inches of rain on Wednesday and into Thursday morning. All that rain led to some fairly severe localized flooding in the Oswego-Montgomery area that resulted in road closures and other irritations. Including water in the Matile Manse basement.


This bench at Hudson Crossing Park in Oswego was given a flood debris overcoat during the community’s latest freshet on April 17-18. (Sue Matile photo)

Some roads will remain closed for weeks or even months, thanks to bridge damage caused by rampaging flood waters. And area parkland along local creeks and the Fox River will be closed for days until the water subsides, and then days more as park district crews work to clean up all the mud and debris.

We’ve had floods before, actually quite frequently during some periods, but most of the biggest ones were spring floods—called freshets by our ancestors—that resulted when the ice on the Fox River broke up.

The worst such freshet, local historians agree, was the 1857 event that scoured the river along its entire length, removing dams, mills, and bridges.

On Feb. 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record reprinted a piece from one of their exchange papers describing that flood;

The Freshet of 1857.

The Batavia News contained the following, which may interest our river readers:

A number of our citizens wishing to know the date of the last freshet, we give below the time, etc., as furnished by Mr. N.S. Young, who has kept a chronicle of events which has happened in Batavia for a number of years and which will be interesting to all.

“The great freshet of 1857 occurred on February 7th. Three very heavy rainfalls on the 5th, 6th, and 7th, upon a body of snow nearly two feet deep was the immediate cause of the rise of water in the Fox River Valley at that time. Every bridge from Elgin to Ottawa except the stone bridge at Batavia was swept away. Huge piles of ice were lodged upon both banks of the river, remaining there till far into the month of April.”

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year's flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year’s flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Those early freshets were all driven by the break-up of ice on the river, which developed into thick sheets behind the mill dams that dotted the river. And while 1857 had the largest such event, it was far from the only serious spring flood on the Fox. Just a decade later, the Record reported on March 12, 1868 that the new iron bridge at Oswego, built just the year before, had been badly damaged by that spring’s flooding:

The Freshet of ’68.

The “breaking up” of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.

Spring flooding continued throughout the Fox Valley even after all those mills and many of their dams had passed into history. As settlement accelerated and then matured, many of the valley’s wetlands were drained to create more farmland and creeks were channelized to speed water runoff into area rivers. And as environmentalists and engineers know, it is not necessarily the volume of water that creates destruction during times of high water, it is the velocity of that water. The new emphasis on getting stormwater runoff away from agricultural fields and into rivers meant flooding events just as large as those old ice breakup driven freshets.

On March 24, 1948, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that:

A few weeks ago we mentioned that the snowstorms kept farm life from getting monotonous. Now two flood-sized rainstorms within a week have kept farmers and city folks busy. Seldom, if ever, has so much rain fallen in so short a period in this vicinity.

Water in the basements, bridges out, and roads impassable in places. Water over the highways. The railroad track washed out above Oswego so no train service, irregular mails, or none at all.

Numbers of people have had autos stuck on gravel roads with farm tractors busy day and night pulling out those unfortunate ones. Not all of the school buses were running on Monday. Some telephones are out because of the wet weather and the electric storms on March 15 and 19.

We’re still dealing with the problem of stormwater runoff velocity, although there are, here and there, efforts to recreate some of those water-slowing wetlands and to recreate some of the meanders in local streams to slow their flow. But no matter what we do, we’re still going to get floods because that’s just what Mother Nature does. And with the advent of global climate change, we’d all better be prepared for flooding and drought and other extremes to become the new normal.

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Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Kendall County, Montgomery, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

The Weaver of Starved Rock

Starved Rock Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A classic example of CCC rustic lodge architecture, it features flagstone floors, huge fieldstone fireplaces, and a restaurant with absolutely terrific food.

Starved Rock Lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. A classic example of CCC rustic lodge architecture, it features flagstone floors, huge fieldstone fireplaces, and a restaurant with absolutely terrific food.

Earlier this week, to celebrate our collective birthdays, the Fletchers and Sue and I took a road trip down to Starved Rock State Park. Dinner at the lodge—which was excellent, as usual—was followed by a hike to the top of The Rock, and then a visit to the fine new visitors’ center.

For out-of-towners, Starved Rock is a towering sandstone bluff along the Illinois River near the mouth of the Fox River. It is separated from the bluffs along the shoreline by an eroded canyon, a bit of topographical happenstance that offered some prime fortification real estate during Illinois’ colonial era.

Climbing to the top of The Rock—le Rocher, as the French called it—it a lot easier these days because of well built concrete paths and sturdy stairways. At the top of The Rock, a wide wooden walkway circles the roughly acre and a half space, with benches and lookouts that tourists enjoy. From the vantage point atop The Rock, visitors can look up and down the Illinois River; watch barge tows hauling grain, coal and other bulk cargoes; and enjoy the huge variety of wildlife, from migrating pelicans to soaring bald eagles to squirrels and the occasional groundhog.

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it's summer best. The white sandstone rock soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it’s summer best. The white sandstone rock soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

I enjoyed the view and watching wildlife, and I also felt a certain amount of satisfaction sitting there watching visitors enjoy the walkway. Because I had a hand, admittedly tangential, in getting it installed back in the 1980s.

The story began on Mother’s Day, 1980, when my friend John Samuel took his family down to Starved Rock to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. As his two sons and his wife walked around the top of the rock, John sat down on a sandstone outcrop and idly scratched at the sand on the path with a twig. As he scratched, what appeared to be a small stone popped out of the ground, and John stared at it intently. Because he immediately realized it was no stone.

Let me interject here that John is an artifact collector who has an almost preternatural talent at finding things with Native American connections that no one else can. And successful searcher and identifier he is, he realized what he was looking at was a bit of human bone. A little more scratching turned up another bone and then another. Carefully covering his finds in situ with sand when no one was watching, John rejoined his family and enjoyed the rest of their afternoon at the rock, taking his secret home with him.

The next morning, he called me, reported his story, and wondered what to do about it. At the time, I was working for the Fox Valley Sentinel as a historical columnist and reporter, and I figured the thing to do was call the folks at the Illinois State Museum and tell them the whole story. Which John did.

At first, state officials were skeptical, but they agreed to meet John atop The Rock to see if something had really been found. It was a quick, eye-opening survey and the area was immediately roped off when it became clear that a body had been discovered in the middle of a walking path at one of Illinois’ most historic sites.

An archaeological team headed by Dr. Ed Jelks was quickly assembled, and a dig was conducted to safely and professionally retrieve the remains. It turned out the burial was right in the middle of the main path around the rock. The young woman whose body it was had been buried inside the walls of Fort St. Louis, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s historic post atop Starved Rock, probably in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Her body was almost touching the fort wall, and she had been buried with a bone matting hook, a tool used to weave the mats the Native People who lived around The Rock used to cover their lodges and for many other purposes. The feet of thousands of visitors who had strolled along the path in which she’d been buried had abraded away some of her bones, the ones that remained were in remarkably good shape. At that late date, some 300 years after her death, it was impossible to determine how she’d died, but that she was buried inside the fort suggested she may have been an important person or was perhaps the wife of a French soldier or trader.

From atop Starved Rock, the Illinois River dam dominates the view upstream. Northern Illinois had yet to green up when my wife, Sue, snapped this shot during our April 9 visit. The park is well worth a visit now and has been for 300 years.

From atop Starved Rock, the Illinois River dam dominates the view upstream. Northern Illinois had yet to green up when my wife, Sue, snapped this shot during our April 9 visit. The park is well worth a visit now and has been for 300 years.

The Illinois State Museum folks were excited at the find; it was one more piece in fleshing out the history of Starved Rock and Fort St. Louis. The folks at the Illinois Department of Conservation were excited because Starved Rock had been confirmed, once again, as the state’s most historic state park. John Samuel was excited because he had helped fill in one of the many blanks in our state’s rich history.

And I was excited because I had a great story to report. It turned out it was an award-winner; my first to win the Best Local Feature Story in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest.

The body of the young lady, who I had dubbed “The Weaver of Starved Rock,” was given a reverential burial elsewhere in the bounds of Starved Rock State Park. And within a year, the wooden walkway had been installed atop The Rock to assure that no other graves would be disturbed by the tens of thousands of visitors who stroll around The Rock every year.

So as I sat there and watched couples and parents with children enjoy walking around The Rock and taking in the spectacular view, I figured I was justified in feeling a certain amount of satisfaction at the outcome of that great story 33 years ago.


Filed under Fur Trade, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Now THAT was a real winter!

Our magnolia tree on March 24, blooming a month ahead of schedule.

The remarkable winter of 2011-12 is officially over. Not, of course, that it ever actually got a good start. But now the spring flowers are bursting with blooms, and flowering trees are doing their colorful best to make a good impression.

Our 40 year-old magnolia tree is really out-doing itself this year. Not only is it blooming about a month early, but it’s covered with blossoms.

I was doing some research the other day and couldn’t help but compare this past winter to the winter of 1872-73. Where this past winter was warm and relatively free of snow, our ancestors 139 years ago were trying to deal with severe cold, dry conditions, and railroad monopolies that made the coal necessary for heating homes and businesses expensive.

That winter got its start early and on Nov. 21, 1872, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Monday morning last the mercury indicated 8 degrees above zero. Pretty cold for the 18th of November.”

Meanwhile, the coal problem was getting worse, with the area’s usual supply being diverted to other, presumably more lucrative areas. Record Publisher John R. Marshall wrote the same week Rank complained about the cold weather: “Large quantities of Morris coal are still hauled to this and other markets on the river as it gives better satisfaction generally than the Vermillion coal and it costs but a dollar more a ton in Yorkville. The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, residents were having problems getting sufficient water for drinking and cooking. On Dec. 5, Marshall noted that: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

No rain came, but plenty of cold weather did. Rank reported the temperature in downtown Oswego on Dec. 25 was -25° F.

It got so cold later that winter, in fact, that it destroyed houseplants and vegetables stored in root cellars. Rank complained that his newsy Oswego columns were shorter because of the time he had to spend thawing ink and warming his fingers enough to write. It was later found that even the county’s honey bee population had been severely afflicted by the cold, with one farmer reporting that only one of 11 hives had survived.

And the coal shortage continued. The Record’s Millington correspondent observed on Jan. 9 that: “Now if my memory is not at fault, the OO&FRVRR [Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road] was to be competing with low freights and cheap coal, but how has it turned out freights as high as ever and no coal half the time at any price. But we have the road and that is better than some sections have faired.”

As Marshall described the winter: “The winter of 1872 and thus far of 1873 may be put down in the diary as ‘severely cold, dry, and blustering.’ Certainly it has been a trying season.”

As late as May 15, he observed that: “This is good weather for wood and coal dealers. It is necessary to keep a fire all the time, and has been since last October to keep a room in decent temperature.”

I suppose I ought to be counting my blessings given our warm and getting warmer weather. But there’s something that’s just not right about what’s happening, and I suspect the prices we’ll pay in the future are still to be realized.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History