Tag Archives: summer

A plea on behalf of the lowly cottonwood…

Several years ago I lost an old, old friend, when crews from the village of Oswego removed a giant cottonwood tree just down North Adams Street from my home.

The tree was dying. After every storm, it dropped a few more branches. A strong windstorm a few weeks before it was taken down brought a giant limb larger than many trees in the village crashing down on the street. So it was probably time the venerable old tree was removed. But I still miss it.

When I moved to North Adams Street as a third grader, the tree, located just next door, was one of the largest along a street crowded with giant overarching elms and cottonwoods.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

In the summertime, we’d sit under it, and even during the hottest days, the rustle of cottonwood leaves–they pick up every hint of a breeze–made a sound that seemed to promise cooler weather. We never climbed the towering tree or tried to build a tree house in it. It was far to large, and the branches closest to the ground were still far higher than those on most of the other mature trees in the neighborhood.

After my wife and I were married, we bought the house—my great-great grandparents had lived there until their deaths in the early 1900s—and the giant cottonwood that dominated the front yard became a part of our lives. We watched each spring as leaves formed, and groused a bit as the inevitable cotton-like seeds coated the 1 neighborhood.

Even then, well over 40 years ago, the tree was starting to die. The dead branches, though, first became homes and feeding stations for woodpeckers and other birds. After limbs were culled by one of our vigorous Illinois windstorms, birds colonized the rotted heartwood voids in jagged stumps left on the tree’s towering trunk. And the rustle of those leaves still sounded a cooling note on the hot summer days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1976, we sold my great-great grandparents’ house and moved next door to my parents’ house (and my childhood home) in 1976. The tree was no longer ours, but we still kept an eye on it. It still shaded the street on sultry August days, and stood out in stark light gray contrast against a cold startlingly blue January sky, offering me, at least, a tie with my childhood and with all the folks who had known the tree.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

The giant cottonwood probably grew of its own accord, seeded by any one of the dozens of towering cottonwoods that once lined the banks of the Fox River. Cottonwoods like moisture, and in our narrow river bottomland along North Adams, the trees found conditions to their liking.

From the size of the tree, it may well have been an immature tree when the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought, possibly even providing some shade along the dirt track that was then called Water Street when my great-great-grandparents moved to the house in which my wife and I would one day live.

The tree had matured by the time my great-grandparents moved to town in 1908, building the home I now live in, to live next to my great-grandmother’s parents, whose front yard the cottonwood dominated. The tree was there to see wars and famine and depression and recovery as the decades passed, growing, maturing, and becoming old, providing shade and living space for a variety of wildlife from fox squirrels to red- headed woodpeckers.

During the years it stood close by the road, the springs that dampen the soil there providing plenty of nourishment, its relatives growing on the banks of the Fox River themselves became old and, ravaged by flood, ice, and age, and one by one, died.

When the settlers arrived, cottonwoods with their penchant for keeping their feet damp marked watercourses and provided both shade and a welcoming environment for hundreds of creatures. They were easy to spot with their distinctive medium gray deeply-fissured bark and towering trunks that can reach 100 feet in height. Like their relatives the poplars and aspens, cottonwoods have rounded triangular-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and a light silvery gray-green below.

The Midwest’s Native People favored cottonwoods for manufacturing dugout canoes because the wood is easily worked. They were not heavily logged as were most of the area’s other timber because cottonwood simply doesn’t make very good lumber. Dried, it becomes lightweight, almost like balsa wood, and so isn’t particularly good for firewood, either.

The passing of our cottonwoods is, I think, a melancholy event. Forest preserves, municipalities, and parks are much more likely to plant one of the more glamorous hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, when they decide to reforest an area. It’s too bad someone is not planting a few cottonwoods, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. They grow fast, tolerate wet conditions, and provide valuable streamside stabilization. And since only the female trees produce the billowing clouds of cottonwood seeds each spring, cloned male trees that are available for planting don’t create that particular problem.

So if no one else is willing to champion planting a few cottonwoods to replace our dying the giants, I will. Consider this a plea to allow our children to enjoy the sound of cottonwood leaves giving a cooling rustle as a breeze stirs on a sultry July afternoon. Give another generation a chance to see towering, gaunt, gray branches silhouetted against a brilliant winter sky. Offer all of us a chance to see the leading gusts of a fast-moving summer thunder storm change the dark green leaves to silvery green as the first gusts hit and big drops of rain begin to fall.

Our old friend on North Adams Street is long gone. The summers have been a little hotter on our street because of the loss of the old giant’s shade, and we have a little less diversity in bird life as woodpeckers and other insect-eaters hunt elsewhere for their dinners. But perhaps as reforestation takes place throughout Kendall County, our forest preserve, park district, and municipal officials will decide that diversity demands a cottonwood or two be included so that future generations can lie on their blankets on a summer day looking up and marveling at what nature—with the help of a few tree planters—has wrought.


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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Wasting quality time during summers on the river

Summers when I was a kid, we spent hours on the Fox River.

These days, we see a lot of canoes and kayaks on the river, groups of them, in fact. But I don’t see any kids using river scows to poke around the shallows along the shore or in and out of the islands that dot the river.

When it comes to kids and the river, things are not what they used to be.

None of us had canoes when I was a youngster—they were, in fact, considered somewhat exotic—but many of us owned a scow at one time or another.

A river scow looked, basically, like a wooden box that tapered at the bow. The sides were generally 12” deep, with the usual width at about four feet (the width of a sheet of plywood), and their length was most often eight feet, though some were both longer and wider. The stern was generally flat, and the bow was slightly swept up. The bottom was usually completely flat with no keel to catch on rocks or other obstructions. Some were painted gray, and some green, some dark blue.

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow apparently got its owners were they needed to go. ("Repairing the Old Scow" from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow with upswept bow and stern apparently got its owners were they needed to go. (“Repairing the Old Scow” from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Unlike tippy round-bottomed canoes, river scows’ wide, flat bottoms made them very stable under almost all conditions. In addition, since they had relatively broad beams (sailor talk for “width”), they were also able to float on very little water, a definite advantage on the generally shallow Fox River during the summer months.

Our scows were never fitted for outboard motors, mostly because the Fox was far too shallow to safely run a motor, unless it was during the annual spring flood, and that was no time to be out on the river. Also, none of us had the money to buy an outboard motor, so there was that, too.

We usually didn’t row, either. Oars were expensive and had to be bought in a store, and rowing in the shallow, rock-filled river was way too challenging. Sometimes, though, oars could be a help, especially when trying to get up one of the river’s rapids.

We didn’t row and we didn’t paddle and we didn’t use outboards, so, you may ask, how did we propel our boats? We polled them, standing up in back like boatmen in Venice propel their gondolas and Senegalese fishermen get from place to place. We made our poles by cutting one of the soft maples that grew like weeds along the shoreline, generally choosing one that was eight to 10 feet long and about two inches in diameter. We favored using our hatchets to dress the business end into a blunt point that made it easier to get a grip on the river’s bottom which ranged from gravel, to rocky, to mud, and even sometimes smooth bedrock. And we left the bark on to give us a better grip.

Polling was a skill that took a bit of learning. Standing in the rear of the boat, the boatman (or boatgirl) stood sideways with the left foot forward (assuming the boatman to be right-handed). After feeling the bottom with the poll to get a good purchase, the poll was pushed using the shoulder and arm muscles and bracing with leg muscles. Besides muscles, successful polling required a good sense of both balance and rhythm.

Scows were generally made with two permanent seats, one in the bow and one amidships. Sometimes a third (usually removable) seat was installed at the stern. Since it was hard to poll with a seat in the way, the stern seat was usually removed during use.

Besides a good pole, the only other standard equipment was an anchor and a couple lengths of rope. We made our own anchors by putting some pieces of scrap iron in a coffee can, and then filling it with concrete, adding an eyebolt before the concrete set. Some scows boasted two anchors, although not many went to the trouble.

Scows were fine craft to explore islands and from which to fish. They were generally stable craft and forgiving of most mistakes. In addition, polling is quiet, and it’s easy to sneak up on a favorite fishing hole, gliding in to catch an unwary catfish.

I helped build two scows for friends, and owned one my folks bought me that was built like a tank of 1” lumber throughout and 2” gunwales. It was so stable that two of us could stand on the gunwale on one side and it wouldn’t tip over. That also meant, however, that it wasn’t the easiest boat to handle given that it was so heavy.

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River.  (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River. (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

By the time we were haunting the Fox River from Boulder Hill to the islands just below Oswego, scows were no longer used for commercial purposes. In the first half of the 20th Century, a lot of Kendall County residents made money clamming—harvesting clams whose shells were then sold to button factories, one of which was located in Yorkville for a few years. A combination of river pollution and the invention of white plastic killed the clamming industry along the river. By the time we came along, though, those days were merely memories and the big scows the clammers used were but memories.

Today, it seems, scows themselves are but memories. I haven’t seen one in use on the river in decades. Today’s kids seem to spend their waking hours playing organized sports, participating in one of the many scout or 4-H groups in the area, or being hustled from one to another of the many organized activities kids participate in these days. There seems to be little interest in spending time alone on the river, observing plants and animals outside the structured settings of school or park programs. And that’s a shame.

There’s nothing quite like gliding through the mist rising from the river on a cool summer morning, watching a Great Blue Heron fish for its breakfast or spying an egret resting on a riverside tree branch, or exploring an island looking for treasure. It’s too bad so few of today’s kids will ever experience it—they don’t know what they’re missing.

But I do.

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Confessions of a “free range kid”…

A couple months ago, the 24 hour news cycle glommed onto a story about “free range kids.” Turns out, there are parents who don’t believe their kids need to be scheduled 24-7, and that, in fact, they think kids can benefit by learning a measure of self-reliance.

This is not an easy road for parents to take in this day and age of abject fear of just about everything, including the seeming rash of child abductions. Which turn out to be another artifact of modern fear and refusal to credit facts. Because actual facts would prove that random child abductions are extremely rare—and always have been—those faces on the milk cartons included. Most child abductions are by parents or other relatives, not random child molesters prowling the streets. Actually, according to government statistics, little kids are far more likely to be killed by a family member or an acquaintance.

In addition, violent crime of all kinds has been sharply decreasing for a couple decades now, although people’s worry about crime have been increasing. Violent crime of all kinds in the U.S. decreased by 48 percent between 1995 and 2013. But during the same era, our fear of crime skyrocketed, something we have to credit that 24-hour news cycle noted above, plus right wing hate radio and FOX News, both groups which have a vested interest in stoking unreasoning fear. They could be citing the, you know, actual facts, but that wouldn’t play well with their audience or their sponsors and donors. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble.

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble, and probably for a game of ditch ’em after supper.

The fact is that crime probably isn’t a whole lot more prevalent when our increased population is taken into account than it was when I was a kid. And back then, in the 1950s, the current fixation on scheduling kids 24/7 wasn’t even possible, at least not in our small Illinois town. Turns out, I was a free range kid.

There simply wasn’t much to do, so we made our own entertainment. Both my folks worked, my dad selling and delivering livestock feed and my mother working at a series of bookkeeping jobs. As a result, my summers from third grade on were the sort of carefree times you read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We were corrupted by reading books by the aforementioned Twain, as well as the Penrod books by Booth Tarkington and—one of our particular, all-time favorites—Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy. Yes, Tarkington’s books on reading 50 years on are remarkably racist and Aldrich was a nativist of the worst stripe. But in those innocent days, the books were mostly useful for introducing the kinds of devilment our ancestors developed, and which we aimed to perfect.

We spent hours every day on the river in our flatbottomed scows, poling up and down the stream because it was far to shallow for oars. Sometimes we fished, although in those years, the fish were pitiful things, since the river was so polluted. It was so polluted, in fact, that we knew enough to never wade barefoot for fear of getting a cut or scrape. Chemical companies upstream figured the river was their own private disposal. One of them dumped cyanide in the river one fine day, killing all the fish—and almost every other aquatic creature, for that matter—for a 10 mile stretch of stream. We counted more than 500 dead fish along my folks’ 132 feet of shoreline. Along with the stunted bullheads and bluegills that we usually caught and the giant carp that infested the river were big bass, large catfish, and even a northern pike or two, fish we had no idea could even survive in our dirty stream (thanks for the allusion, Pete).

If worse came to worst, we'd head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

If worse came to worst, we’d head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

Even so, we were fascinated with exploring the river’s islands, looking for this and that, or just drifting along on a sunny afternoon. I bought my scow from a young fellow up river, but most of us built our own. Most were lightly built, but not mine, which was built of 1″ lumber throughout and was so heavy—and stable—that I could jump up and down on one of the gunwales and it would barely rock.

When we got tired of playing on the river, we’d repair to the woods across the street from my house where we cleared bicycle trails connecting “towns” we’d built with windfallen sticks we harvested from under the trees. Our houses sported gabled, thatched roofs thanks to the tall grasses that grew on some of the islands that were fairly rainproof.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

In the evening, after supper, we’d head up to town to sit on the corner of Main Street and Route 34 and look for out-of-state license plates in those years when Ike’s Interstate system was under construction and U.S. highways were major transportation corridors, or play games of ditch-em on our bikes that taught us every nook, cranny, and back alley of our little village.

There were the pick-up games of baseball, First Bounce or Fly, and 500, and sometimes we’d even attend the park district’s youth programming—but that was very much a last resort. We didn’t much care for organized “fun,” and most of us still don’t. I suppose it was good training for the 1960s, attitudes that even the military service so many of us contributed didn’t, as far as I can tell, have much of an impact.

It was pretty much as idyllic a childhood as anyone could imagine. Boring? Sometimes, you bet it was, but it turns out boredom is a creative force, one that too many modern kids are not given the opportunity to enjoy along with the unstructured, creative play we enjoyed growing up in plenty.



Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Today’s lesson, ladies: Don’t fool around with Dr. Lester

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

This August 16 sunset shot on Butternut Lake illustrates one reason why we head north to Wisconsin as often as we can.

Posting’s been lighter than usual due to a vacation up in the North Woods that went very well.

We picked up my fishing buddy, Paul Baumann, at the Central Wisconsin Airport and then traveled up to our cottage on Butternut Lake. The next day, Paul and my wife Sue (also a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1964) and I all headed up to the Whitecap Mountain ski area and picked up another high school buddy of ours, Jerry Rissman. And then we went up to Bayfield on Lake Superior, took the ferry over to Madeline Island, and spent the afternoon with yet another high school friend, Bill Fennell. All in all, it was a mini-high school reunion that was lots of fun.

The weather for the remaining days of vacation Up North wasn’t the best, but we did catch fish, and had a lot of fun and (as usual) great food.

Heading north in the summer to get away from it all is far from a new thing under the sun. Many of us Illinois kids went north with our parents and so came to enjoy the quiet and beauty of Wisconsin’s lakes and forests. But heading north was pretty common well before the 1950s. My dad helped a friend build a log fishing cabin on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in the 1930s. And 19th Century newspaper accounts suggest getting out of Illinois during the season when corn was tasseling out and ragweed pollen was at its height was the only way to find a little relief.

Back in the 1800s, one of Oswego’s three physicians was Dr. Gilbert Lester. A native of New Brunswick, Canada, Lester suffered greatly from hay fever and in those pre-Benadryl days getting out of his adopted hometown and back to his native New Brunswick was the only way to cope. As Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank put it in the Aug. 29, 1880 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

Later in the century, he favored heading north up to Lake Superior for a few summer weeks. According to the Aug. 17, 1892 Kendall County Record:

“Dr. Lester started this morning on his annual trip north to get out of the reach of the hay fever…Marquette on Lake Superior is to be the Doc’s destination.”

Lester’s first wife, Caroline Elizabeth Hunt Lester, died in January 1884, whereupon he apparently enjoyed bachelorhood—to excess, some might have said.

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dr. Gilbert Benjamin Lester in an 1888 engraving. (Little White School Museum collection)

Starting in the late 1880s, a frequent visitor to Lester’s home, where he lived with his two unmarried daughters, was Anna Brown. The daughter of a literate family from down Newark way, Anna had begun her teaching career in 1870 at the Old Stone School in Oswego and was reportedly well liked by her students and their parents.

On May 1, 1877, she took her students out for a walk to gather flowers for their May baskets. The hike led them south along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks from downtown Oswego to the woods and pastures that bordered the rail line. The children were having a good time gathering flowers when they heard the whistle of the upbound passenger train. Brown looked up and was horrified to see one of her students, little David Carpenter, frozen in fear, on the short rail bridge over Morgan Creek. The May 3, 1877 Kendall County Record reported what happened next:

“As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.

The train was stopped, backed up, and the unfortunate lady got aboard and taken to Oswego, thence to her boarding place. Doctors were summoned, and her injuries found to be severe. The toes of the left foot were crushed, and portions of the foot had to be amputated. She was badly hurt about the back by the fall, and internal injuries are feared. Tuesday night the doctors thought she would not recover, but Wednesday morning she had rallied somewhat from the shock.”

Lorenzo Rank, in the next week’s Record, reported on the acclaim Brown was receiving in the community:

“She has been held in high esteem in this community because of her many good qualities, always active on the side of religion and good morals, is an excellent teacher, with the faculty to make herself beloved by all her scholars. It was said by the passengers that on the return to the place of the accident, the scene was very affecting, that there was a general crying and sorrow of the children, and all that first could be got out of them was ‘Miss Brown is killed;’ some adding, ‘Davie Carpenter is to blame.’ Now beside all this she is a heroine and will be more admired than ever before.”

As determined as ever, Brown recovered from the ordeal and went on with her career. Although having a limp the rest of her life and needing a stout cane to walk, she continued to teach school in Oswego and later in Chicago and finally Sandwich, where she was working when she and Dr. Lester became romantically involved. On July 12, 1893 Lorenzo Rank reported in the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column:

“According to report, a quiet wedding took place last week; one of our prominent widowers with a former teacher in our school, to wit: Dr. Lester and Miss Anna Brown.”

But while Dr. Lester was once again married, apparently he was loath to give up some of his bachelor habits, one of whom was Charlotte Haight, wife of prominent Oswego businessman David M. Haight.

David M. Haight's store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer's philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

David M. Haight’s store at the northeast corner of Main and Washington streets in downtown Oswego. Haight went bankrupt just a few weeks after Anna Brown Lester attacked the grocer’s philandering wife. (Little White School Museum photo)

Anna knew that Mrs. Haight had paid altogether too much attention to Dr. Lester for many years, and she warned the storekeeper’s wife to stay away from their home or face the consequences. “If you continue to come, you come at your peril,” she wrote in a letter to Charlotte Haight. Mrs. Haight, however, refused to stay away from the Lester home. As we’ve seen above, Anna Brown Lester was no shrinking violet and so decided on direct action, using her sturdy cane to punctuate the points of her argument. As the Oct. 12, Aurora News Semi-Weekly, reported:

“A bride of scarcely two months, jealous of her husband’s attentions to another woman, waylaid her rival Tuesday night and administered a severe thrashing with a stout cane for which offense she this morning cheerfully paid a fine of three dollars and costs….

Dr. Lester of Oswego, a widower past 60 years of age, was wed less than two months ago to Miss Anna Brown, a maiden lady of 40 summers or over. Miss Brown had lived much of the time in Oswego but of late years had been a school teacher at Sandwich.

For a few weeks after the honeymoon, all was apparently lovely in the relations of Dr. Lester and his bride. Lately observing people have noticed a slight change.

Mrs. Lester became convinced that Mrs. D.M. Haight, wife of one of the leading merchants of the town and her husband, were getting altogether too familiar. The sheep’s eyes that Mrs. H. cast at the doctor were simply unbearable and there was talk, too, that made the matter all the worse. Tuesday night, matters came to a climax.

Mrs. Lester waited in the shadow of her husband’s office and when her rival came along for the usual evening chat with the doctor, the enraged wife fell upon her with a heavy cane, which she plied with such vigorous effect that Mrs. Haight still bears the bruises.”

Two days later, in a letter to her good friend and stepdaughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lester Smith, Anna noted that Mrs. Haight and Dr. Lester had been seeing each other for a decade. While she said she was mortified to be brought up before Justice Lockwood, she suggested she did not regret waling the tar out of Mrs. Haight, writing:

“Mr. L read the charge of assaulting her, striking her with a cane &c and then it was my turn to speak and I said “I did follow her from my husband’s office and struck her with a cane two or three times & she knows how many times better than I and she deserved it all.” This is about my speech. He put the fine at $3 & cost so it amounted to $4.20 — So with the talk and reports in papers it has cost me dear.”

So, anyway, a couple weeks later, D.M. Haight’s well-known Oswego store went broke, thanks to the on-going financial Panic of 1893. The Haights moved to Chicago where D.M. engaged as a traveling salesman for the Fox River Butter Company, and presumably clearing the field for more of Mrs. Haight’s amorous adventures. Dr. Lester, his health debilitated by chronic hay fever and serious eye problems—and possibly one too many women in his life—died in March 1895 at the age of 65. Anna Brown Lester had the last laugh, enjoying several more years living in Oswego to general acclaim and participating in the community’s civic affairs until her death from pneumonia in 1909.

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Garden bounty from the past…

So my wife, Sue, went out yesterday morning to see what was ripe in our tiny vegetable garden and came in with a colander filled with fresh green beans, leaf lettuce, and—will wonders never cease—a large, red, ripe tomato.

Yesterday's harvest from the Matile Manse garden and the stand of wild black raspberries in our backyard.

Yesterday’s harvest from the Matile Manse garden and the stand of wild black raspberries in our backyard.

According to her garden diary, this was the earliest we’ve ever harvested a full-sized tomato. Cherry tomatoes ripen early, of course, as do the German strawberry variety she planted this year, purchased at Contrary Mary’s. But full-sized tomatoes?

The other thing she brought in from her labors was a nice bunch of ripe black raspberries, picked from the canes that grow along the railroad track that runs along our east property line. This year, for a wonder, there was plenty of rain to produce nice plump berries. Also, the railroad has (so far) failed to spray its right-of-way with Agent Orange or whatever it is they use to kill off all the vegetation along the tracks.

Up on the other side of the tracks there are, or at least there used to be, a few blackberry bushes (these, as Wikipedia dryly notes, are the fruits, not the handheld communication device) but I’ve always found them a bit tasteless. Black raspberries, on the other hand, are smaller, but much sweeter and tasty.

I always wonder if the canes growing along the tracks are descendants of the ones my great-grandparents planted after they moved to town when they retired from farming. They moved to our house in October 1908, prepared to spend a decade, or maybe two, in retirement. But they hadn’t counted on their longevity. They both lived to see their middle 90s and to celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary.

That long life meant the savings they’d planned to live off, as well as hopes for some support from their children, slowly evaporated. So they resorted to selling produce from their gardens and orchard, including apples and apricots in the orchard north of the house, black walnuts from the trees lining the street they planted in front of the house, and a large patch of black raspberry bushes east of the house near the tracks.

Grandpa Lantz died here at our house at the age of 95 in October 1942, 34 years after he and his wife moved in. Grandma Lantz, two years his junior, followed him in September 1943.

When my parents bought the house from my grandparents, the orchard to the north and the raspberry patch and gardens to the east had turned into impenetrable thickets. So mom had her cousin, Mike Lantz, bring his bulldozer down and clear it off, removing the low berm along the rail line while he was at it. My dad, mom, sister, and I (I was 9 at the time) raked the rocks and roots out with garden rakes and dad spread a little grass seed around and that was about it.

Raspberry roots are tough things, though, and it wasn’t long before they started growing again where it was hard to mow due to the rocks in the rail line’s ballast.

Despite being periodically sprayed with all manner of vegetation sterilizers, they just keep coming back, year after year, providing the basis for rich black raspberry jams and jellies and cobblers and fresh black raspberry sundaes on hot summer evenings, a tangible, tasty, reminder of family days gone by.

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History quickie…

So it’s August 1872 in Kendall County. The weather’s hot and humid. What do you look for as a refreshing, non-alcoholic drink?

From the Aug. 15, 1872 Kendall County Record:

Iced tea is now in season. It is very nice and appropriate served at evening croquet parties, and it will also be found refreshing and gently invigorating at the dinner hour. Those in the habit of using it assert that no drowsiness follows its use in hot weather, and it is therefore invaluable to people of sedentary occupation and habits.

That’s right; iced tea was a big hit 140 years ago. I imagine you have a few questions, like where did they get the ice? And who thought the whole thing up? Don’t know, but it’s still a pretty cool historical factoid, don’t you think?

This concludes our lesson in historical refreshments…

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Filed under Food, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia