Winter snows have dusted—and often buried—Kendall County’s present landscape since glaciers shaped it some tens of thousands of years ago.
The area’s first inhabitants were Stone Age hunters who gradually moved north as the huge ice sheet, which once covered our area here in northern Illinois to a depth of several thousand feet, retreated. The glacial melt and the climate change it caused not only created the Fox Valley’s landforms, but also produced the area’s rich soil.
During the summer, those ancient wandering hunters had a relatively easy life–game of all sizes was abundant along the ice edge and there were plenty of native plants to add to their diet. During that era, northern Illinois’ landscape strongly resembled that seen in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and was dominated by spruce forests.
In winter, living for the hunter-gatherer groups got more difficult. In the truly harsh winters of that era it is likely they ate dried wild fruits, nuts, and berries along with dried meat and fish. But food storage technology was not much advanced during that era, making it difficult for the Native People to preserve food for the long winters they had to endure.
The struggle for survival by these groups is illustrated today by the remains of ancient campsites found in Kendall County, especially in the Morgan Creek area of Oswego Township. The creek valley is actually the remains of a prehistoric glacial lake, around whose rim many ancient campsites have been discovered. In addition, characteristic projectile points from this prehistoric period have been discovered on the ridges around the old glacial lake and at several other Kendall County sites.
As the years passed, those glacial lakes disappeared, filling in with silt, while the Fox River continued to cut its way down through layers of limestone, slowly decreasing in volume as the glaciers that originally fed it with their melt water retreated far to the north and eventually disappeared.
During the next several centuries, successive Indian groups moved in and through the Fox Valley, only to be dispossessed by other groups seeking to control the rich hunting grounds. Pothole lakes gouged by the glaciers silted in and became marshes and sloughs that supported huge numbers of game animals.
The Fox River’s bottomlands, enriched by the silt deposits washed off the prairies, were heavily farmed by highly organized Indian groups of the Mississippian Cultural Tradition.
The Mississippians had invaded Illinois about 800 A.D. from the south, pushing out or absorbing the resident Hopewell people. Large numbers of Mississippians probably lived in Kendall County, extensively farming the river bottom, especially in the area of today’s Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area. Large amounts of Mississippian pottery shards were uncovered when the new Five Mile Bridge across the Fox was built near Silver Springs State Park several decades ago.
Because the Mississippian culture relied heavily on farming for subsistence, winter fell much less heavily on them than it had on the area’s ancient hunters. During the winter months, Mississippians probably hunted when the weather permitted as they whiled away the cold weather repairing fishing nets, making tools, and eating the preserved corn, beans and squash they’d harvested.
By the time the first Europeans arrived in Illinois, the Mississippian people had vanished, their civilization possibly destroyed by the same climate changes that destroyed Native Peoples’ cultural traditions in the West and Southwest. It appears the Mississippians broke up into tribal groups that eventually became the Illinois Confederacy and related tribes Europeans found living here when they explored the region in the 1600s. Starting in the 1680s, Europeans and Americans of European descent slowly pushed northern Illinois’ Native People west of the Mississippi River, finally in the 1830s completing a pattern begun thousands of years before.
Permanent American settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, building their log cabins and barns and rail fences in the southern part of the county. Like the Native People they’d soon displace, the settlers farmed in summer to store up enough food to last through the area’s severe winters. In order to create more tillable land, the farmers cut down the county’s groves, straightened the creeks, and drained the glacier-created wetlands, all of which had negative effects on periodic flooding and erosion.
The descendants of those first settlers also managed to use the Fox Valley’s harsh winter weather as a money-maker. Every town along the Fox River boasted a mill and dam. Since mechanical refrigeration was unknown, huge quantities of ice were required to preserve food in homes and businesses and to cool meat shipped East from Chicago’s sprawling stockyards. Companies were established to organize ice harvesting at the area’s dam sites. Each winter, tons of ice were cut and stored in icehouses to await shipment later in the year.
According to an article in the Jan. 25, 1883 Kendall County Record, the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company harvested 1,000 tons of ice a day from the pond behind the dam at Parker’s Mills, just north of Oswego’s downtown, storing it in huge ice houses, the largest of which measured 150 feet by 180 feet. The company owned a similar operation at Yorkville.
In most of 19th Century Kendall County, though, the pace of life slowed in winter. Farmers fed their livestock, cut firewood, split fence rails, and repaired equipment while the rest of the area’s residents kept warm and attended numerous dinners, speeches, and church services. They also enjoyed getting their sleighs out, harnessing up the family driving horse and went “dashing through the snow.” As the Record reported in December 1886, “The roads are now in splendid condition for a light fall of snow to make good sleighing–in fact, you will find a cutter [one-horse open sleigh] runs very nicely now on most roads.
Today, with all-weather roads and modern autos, life in winter is not much different than life in summer, and in fact becomes more hectic during the holiday season, even this one that has been so seriously affected by the pandemic. In fact, global climate change is resulting in more and more mild winters here on the northern Illinois prairies.
But as we drive on slushy roads and look towards a cold and wintry New Years, it may be well to remember it was not always thus. In a simpler, less populated, chillier time, during the snowy winter of 1887 with no motorized traffic on area roads and streets, the Record’s Oswego correspondent could admiringly write: “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of young and old enjoyed themselves.”