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1873: The year Kendall County farmers flexed their political muscle

Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.

In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].

But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].

1870s CB&Q locomotive

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad Company leased an engine like this one from the CB&Q Railroad while the line was under construction. When the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to wrest ownership away and maintain their monopoly on rail freight in the Fox Valley.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.

Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.

But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.

Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.

Bradwell, Myra

Myra Colby Bradwell worked with her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, to establish women’s suffrage in Illinois in the early 1870s.

Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.

On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.

“We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”

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German immigrant farmers from the Oswego Prairie Church neighborhood flew this flag on their way to the July 4, 1873 farmers’ and laborers’ picnic in Yorkville. The flag is now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.

The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.

Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.

Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.

Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.

Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.

 

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Spring planting a tradition around these parts for millennia

Spring planting is about ready to begin once again on the Illinois prairie, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago.

The first American pioneer farmers arrived here in the Fox River Valley area in the late 1820s. But the region’s Native People had already been farming for thousands of years by the time those first settlers arrived.

Most experts previously believed that agriculture in what is now the continental U.S. was imported from Mexico, along with the trinity of subtropical crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. What is now accepted, after decades of archaeological work, is that the eastern United States is one of about ten regions in the world to become independent centers of agricultural origin.

The initial four plants known to have been domesticated by those earliest, pre-maize prehistoric farmers were goosefoot, sunflowers, marsh elder, and squash. Several other species of plants were subsequently added to the list of domesticated wild plants.

After 200 BCE when maize—corn—from Mexico was introduced into what is now the eastern United States, the Native People of the present-day United States and Canada soon stopped growing domesticated varieties of native plants, switching to an agricultural economy based on growing fields of maize complimented by beans and squash. As that evolution took place, the cultivation of domesticated native plants declined until it was almost wholly abandoned, and the domesticated native plants quickly reverted to their wild forms.

Cultivating Crops

Native People began cultivating and modifying native plants thousands of years ago.

Horticulture intensified in the Woodland period, and most Native American populations began living in villages near their fields. In about AD 800, corn and beans reached the Mississippi Valley, and by about AD 1000, the Mississippian culture that relied on corn, beans, and squash was established in Alabama.

Squash of the Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana variety is considered to be one of the first domesticated native plants in the Eastern Woodland region, having been found in use here some 7,000 years ago. However, it doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly domesticated until around 3,000 years ago.

That earliest variety of squash was originally raised for its edible seeds, and used for small containers (gourds) when dried. Squash with edible flesh came quite a bit later.

Other edible native plants domesticated by the region’s Native People included little barley, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers.

These edible plants are often divided by those studying the subject into “oily” and “starchy” categories. Oily edible seeds are produced by sunflowers and sumpweeds, while erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive Japanese cousin) and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starchy. Maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that produce grains that may be ground to make flour, are also starches.

So how have we discovered all this new information? According to the most recent findings by archaeologists, humans were already collecting native edible plants by 6,000. Then Native People discovered by could modify them by selective breeding and cultivation. Archaeologists confirmed that process in the 1970s when they began noticing significant differences in seeds, burned and otherwise, collected in Native Peoples’ village sites, especially when those seeds were compared to their counterparts still growing in the wild. When carefully studied, the seeds collected in village sites were not only larger, but they were also easier to separate from their shells, husks, or chaff. It was those comparisons that led archaeologists to conclude ancient farmers had begun manipulating the genetics of wild plants by selective breeding much longer ago than previously thought.

One of the major regions where these successful efforts at ancient agriculture flourished is right here in the middle Mississippi River Valley, stretching from Memphis in the south to St. Louis in the north in a belt roughly 300 miles on either side of the river in the current states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

So far, the oldest-known archaeological site in the United States where ancient people have been found to be purposefully growing—rather than gathering—food is the Phillips Spring site in Missouri. At Phillips Spring, dating from 3,000 BCE, Archaeologists have found large numbers of walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, grapes, elderberries, ragweed, bottle gourd, and the seeds of a gourd that produces edible seeds that is the ancestor of pumpkins and most squashes. The gourd seeds found at the site were significantly larger than the wild variety, leading archaeologists to determine the plants’ genetics had been purposefully manipulated by native farmers who selected, planted, and then carefully tended the seeds that produced ever larger and more nutritious seeds. And eventually, continual genetic manipulation led to the gourds producing edible flesh as well.

Marsh elder is one of the many native plants ancient Native People domesticated for use as food before the introduction of maize–corn–an import from Mexico.

By 1800 BCE, Native People considered part of the Late Archaic cultural tradition in our region of the United States were cultivating a number of different plants. At the Riverton Site near downstate Palestine, IL in Crawford County, archaeologists have excavated one of best-known sites that illustrate the ancient people’s cultivation and domestication of native plants. At the Riverton Site, 10 dwelling houses have been excavated and studied, suggesting a village with a population of between 50 and 100 people. The fire hearths and storage pits excavated turned out to include a large number of plant remains. Among those remains were large numbers of seeds goosefoot, also called lamb’s quarters that the scientists determined came from cultivated and domesticated plants. They reached this conclusion because some of the seeds had husks only a third as thick as the plants’ wild varieties, making them much easier to process into food after harvesting.

As the years passed into the Middle Woodland cultural tradition, gardeners continued to cultivate and improve squash and gourds as Archaic Indians had done, but they also domesticated several other native plants that are considered to be weeds today. Building on their knowledge of Illinois’ native plants, Middle Woodland people began to establish gardens of goosefoot, marsh elder, little barley, maygrass, and other varieties of squash. Each autumn, they saved seeds from the best of the plants growing in their fields and then planted them when spring rolled around again. Eventually, these Native People became increasingly committed to particular plots of land and created a way of life organized around both wild and domesticated plants.

But change, in the form of maize, was just over the horizon. Strangely enough, though, as well as we know maize—we’ve been cultivating it around these parts for many hundreds of years now—we know very little about its origin. Many of those trying to figure out where it came from have fingered a grass named teosinte as the ancestor of modern corn. But there’s a fairly serious problem: Teosinte does not have a cob. This has led some of those looking into the mystery to suggest corn’s ancestor was some other wild grass that has now disappeared entirely.

Researchers Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, suggest in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica that: “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

One problem is, however, that this “wild form” of corn has never been found in either the historical or archaeological record.

Another significant problems is there is no evidence that the early peoples of the Americas ever used or harvested teosinte. Finally, it has been theorized for a long time now that the Maya of Central and South America had cultivated and crossbred teosinte into maize. But no evidence has ever been discovered of this, either.

About all archaeologists and plant scientists have been able to nail down is that maize quickly became the most important staple grain in ancient Mexico. Ziz maize suddenly appeared about 4800 BCE on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco, Mexico, for instance. But there are no known wild specie of it in that area, suggesting it was imported, even at that early date, from somewhere else. After its abrupt appearance, the cultivation and genetic enhancement of maize became the focus of ancient American farmers.

But while maize quickly became the most important food grain for ancient peoples beans weren’t far behind. According to most current evidence, beans were originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala—the same areas where Zia maize was developed. The really neat thing about the beans those ancient farmers crossbred and improved so long ago is that beans’ proteins naturally complement the proteins in maize. Beans, it turns out, produce the acids lysine and tryptophan that nicely complement the amino acid zein from maize.

So with the invention of corn and beans, two of the legs of the Native Peoples’ Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—were in place where they joined the third leg that had already been undergoing genetic breeding for thousands of years.

2017 planting corn in Illinois

In another month and a half, area farmers will once again be looking to start planting corn and beans–just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Although it’s pretty obvious the methods they’ll be using this year have undergone some changes.

It took a while, but gradually maize and its complimentary beans spread north into the Mississippi River Valley, where its cultivation quickly displaced growing the region’s domesticated crops. Corn, beans, and native squash and other gourds caused the abandonment of the old, locally developed, strains of little barley, lambsquarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers, and the reversion of the cultivated strains of those plants to their native states.

Now, many centuries after corn and beans made their way north of their native Mexico and Central America, they still make up the bulk of the fields farmers in the Fox Valley plant. Granted, today’s soybeans are a strain developed in Asia, where they were being grown as long ago as 7000 BCE. It has always seemed ironic to me that our modern soybeans were developed by the descendants of some of the same people who crossed the land bridge to North America tens of thousands of years ago to become the people who also invented corn. All of which is nice historic and prehistoric symmetry, don’t you think?

 

 

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It’s about time…

Remember that hour of sleep you gained last November when we went on Central Standard Time? Well it is coming due for payment as we switch to Central Daylight Savings Time. Before you go to bed on Saturday night, March 10, be sure to set your clocks ahead an hour.

As of 2 a.m. that Sunday morning here in the Central Time Zone, we all moved to Central Daylight Savings Time, meaning when it’s noon in Yorkville, it’s also noon in Ottumwa, Ia. and in Green Bay, Wis.

As you have probably gathered from material I’ve written over the years, one of the things I’m fascinated with is how things we take for granted came to be the way they are today. And time was, when it was 9 a.m. here in Oswego, it wasn’t anywhere close to 9 a.m. in, say, Council Bluffs, Ia. because each community set their clocks by when the sun was directly overhead at noon.

Image result for railroad time

The original time zone map for the United States has undergone a few modifications since the system was established in 1883, but for the most part the zones established 135 years ago are still largely intact.

This really wasn’t much of a problem for the first hundred years of the nation’s existence, but with the advent of railroads and their rapid expansion across the country, timing became a real challenge. It wasn’t only an issue with travelers, but safely scheduling increasingly fast trains on multiple tracks became a real, and sometimes deadly, problem.

So the big railroads in the U.S. and Canada got together and in 1883, they announced a new system of time zones across North America in which the time would be identical for all areas within each zone. And when the railroads, then the biggest economic power in the country, announced their new time zones were going to be put into effect starting Nov. 18, 1883, the entire nation was pretty much obliged to go along with them.

The Nov. 22, 1883 Kendall County Record announced the new time schedule in a prominent article headlined “Change of Railroad Time; Nine Minutes Slower.” As Record Editor John R. Marshall reported:

“By concerted action, which has been under discussion for some time, the leading railroads have established a new method of reckoning time, and it went into effect on Sunday last at noon.

“Heretofore, trains on different [rail]roads have been run on Chicago time or St. Louis time or Burlington or New York time, as the managers saw fit, and much inconvenience has been occasioned thereby. Now, instead of time being changed by the sun as we proceed east or west, for certain territories a fixed time has been established without regard to the time the sun’s ascension or declination would show. The territory is arbitrarily fixed by meridian lines, if we understand the matter rightly. With us, it is the 19th Meridian, known as ‘Central Standard Time,’ and it is nine minutes slower than Chicago time. This standard reaches to all points east of the Missouri river, so that, if we read right, 12 noon at Chicago is 12 noon at Council Bluffs, Ia. Under the old time, when it was 12 at Washington [D.C.], it was 11:17 at Chicago and 10:44 at Council Bluffs.”

A press release furnished the Record by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad informed Marshall that:

“This new time will be generally adopted by all the railroads in this section of the country and I would suggest the advisability of your considering its adoption for the standard time in your city.”

In other words, communities were free to adopt the new standard time or not. But since all of the nation’s railroads were going to operate on the new time, and since railroads were then the backbone of the nation’s economic system, not adopting the new standard simply didn’t make much sense.

Locally, the impact wasn’t very great since Kendall County is so close to the center of what became the new Central Time Zone. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent observed in his Nov. 29 column:

“The new time arrangement by the railroad authorities has called forth many newspaper notices. This locality is hardly any affected by it, being left with the true time nearly as much so as before—the Chicago time by which it was governed was about 4 minutes too fast, that now adopted 5 minutes too slow—but on the dividing lines its effects will be much felt and work queerly.”

As Rank noted:

“On the west side of the line the time always will be 30 minutes ahead of the true time, while on the east side it will be 30 minutes behind, making a difference of one hour between the two sections, so when a man jumps on a horse and gallops to a place east over the line some distance, making it in 30 minutes, he will get there a half hour before he started from home, but in returning at the same speed, it will take him an hour and a half.”

Not all areas of the country agreed with the railroads’ effective seizure of authority to set local time. But use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communications and travel.

Image result for daylight savings time 1918

Daylight Savings Time was introduced as an energy saving measure during World War I. Dropped after the war, it was reestablished when World War II broke out.

Odd as it may seem, standardized time zones across the country were not established by U.S. law until the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918, which also established Daylight Savings Time, a much more controversial idea, especially in rural areas like Kendall County.

Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1895 that George Vernon Hudson proposed its modern incarnation. Not until wartime conditions made the time right to establish nationally standardized time did Hudson’s idea become law. And an unpopular one at that.

But given the patriotism stirred up by World War I, the nation was willing to give it a try. Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall (son of John R. Marshall quoted above) observed that the idea didn’t prove as problematic as many feared, asking in the April 3, 1918 edition:

“Didn’t mind it, did you? You never noticed the change of time after the novelty wore off, but did you notice that you did not burn so much light at night as before?”

But the nation’s farmers did notice it. Because the cows that needed milking and the cattle and hogs and chickens that needed feeding didn’t care one little bit about what the farmers’ clocks said. They were running on their own internal clocks provided and maintained by Mother Nature, not some arbitrary schedule, even if it was codified into law.

While Congress voted to repeal Daylight Savings Time after the war—over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson—the idea of standardized time zones across the entire country remained enshrined in law. Daylight Savings Time returned once again during World War II, again touted as a method of saving energy. Referred to as “War Time,” Congress again voted to repeal it as soon as the war was over, much to the glee of farmers across the nation. The Record’s Oswego correspondent happily observed in the Oct. 31, 1945 edition:

O! the joy and peace and contentment when the announcer is heard to say, “We have no two-timers this morning; Central Standard has come to stay,” (we hope).”

Daylight Savings Time was finally made law in 1974 in the midst of the energy crisis, touted, just as it had been during the two world wars, as a way to save energy. And this year, come Nov. 18, we’ll observe the 135th anniversary of the day they made everyone and every thing in the nation’s time zones start running on the same times.

 

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Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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It’s open water year round these days on the Fox River

Drive south on Ill. Route 25 along the Fox River from the Kane County line during the coldest winter months and you won’t help but notice that the farther you travel into Kendall County the more the amount of ice on the river increases.

Granted, the river from the Montgomery dam south to Oswego is generally swift moving and dotted with small rapids, but swift-flowing water isn’t the reason the Fox doesn’t freeze over, because it used to just a few decades ago.

So what’s the reason for the open water until you nearly reach Yorkville?

The main answer seems to be that the largest tributaries of the Fox River these days are not those creeks, springs, and wetlands created by the last Ice Age. Instead, we are the river’s largest tributaries—the men, women, and children who live in the Fox Valley.

When the 18th Century ended, it was less than three decades until the first permanent white settlers arrived in the Fox Valley. As 1799 turned into 1800, the river’s largest tributaries were the creeks that drained thousands of acres of wetlands that dotted the river valley from Wisconsin to the mouth of the Fox on the Illinois River. In Kendall County, the largest of these subsidiary streams were, from north to south, Waubonsie Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Big Rock Creek.

Most of these creeks were the main outlets for large wetlands. Waubonsie Creek, for instance, drained the Wabausia Swamp on the Kane-Kendall County border, a wetland that covered nearly a square mile. Morgan Creek, too, drained extensive wetlands that were the remains of a former glacial lake.

Both north and south, other smaller and larger streams and springs added their flows to the river.

During the winter months, the water that seeped and flowed into the river from its bordering wetlands and tributary creeks was cold, having been pre-cooled as it slowly made its way to the river.

1915 abt Drainage

One of the many rural drainage projects was this 24″ tile draining wetlands along Wolf’s Crossing Road into Waubonsie Creek about 1911. This particular project was dug by hand. (Little White School Museum collection)

As soon as the settlers arrived, they began to wage war on the Fox Valley’s expansive wetlands. Over a 50-year period, they aggressively drained marshland and channelized streams, the former to create more farmland and the latter to drain stormwater into the river as quickly as possible to stop nearby farmland from flooding. Their efforts were extremely effective, even given that all the earliest drainage work was completed by animal power and hand labor. By the start of the 20th Century, drainage efforts continued, now assisted by steam-powered dredges.

The result was the addition of additional tillable land, and the elimination of wetlands that were homes to hordes of disease-carrying insects. Drying up the county’s numerous marshes and sloughs led to a precipitous decline in the occurrence of malaria—called “the ague” by the settlers.

But a major unintended consequence of all those drainage efforts was that they not only sharply decreased the summer and winter flows of the river, but they also led to more frequent flooding. That’s because the stormwater “banks” created by the county’s wetlands and meandering streams were eliminated. Instead of runoff trapped in sloughs and marshes slowly soaking in to recharge ground water supplies and be slowly discharged over a period of weeks following rainstorms or snow melt, the runoff was rapidly channeled into the Fox River where it flowed downstream to the Illinois River. When dry months arrived, there was no water “bank” to add to the river’s flows, and it nearly dried up during some dry periods.

In addition, the velocity of the water from the Fox’s tributaries greatly increased due to the elimination of meanders in the streams—channelization—and the disappearance of the wetlands that once slowed the speed of stormwater runoff. That resulted in farmland drying out much more quickly after precipitation fell, but it also resulted in more erosion, with the area’s incredibly rich topsoil washing into the fast-flowing channelized streams. The fast-flowing muddy water caused major flooding far more frequently.

Fox Metro plant

The Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s sprawling wastewater treatment plant between Montgomery and Oswego is today a major Fox River tributary.

And then, as the 19th Century ended, a new sort of tributary started adding to the river’s flows, this one far from the crystal clear water that was once generated by wetlands and meandering creeks. In the early decades of the 20th Century, it finally became apparent, that simply dumping raw sewage, from human waste to industrial products, didn’t get rid of the problem; it just moved it downstream. The human, animal, and industrial waste pumped directly into the river began to be treated to greater or lesser degrees as recognition of the dangers of pollution became clearer, and as wastewater treatment technology advanced.

With the Fox Valley’s population growth, the increasing volume of body temperature sewage began raising the river’s temperature, but at first there wasn’t enough inflow volume to noticeably affect it. As late as the late 1960s, the river regularly froze over all the way from Aurora south to Yorkville. When I was in high school in the early 1960s, we regularly ice skated on the river from Oswego north to Boulder Hill, a distance of three or so miles.

Ice skating on Fox

In about 1920, when this photo was snapped on the frozen Fox River immediately upstream from the Oswego bridge, the river regularly froze over and offered a fine site for community ice skating. (Little White School Museum collection)

But shortly after that, as my friend, Dr. Paul Baumann, pointed out in his 1976 monograph, A Bicentennial History of the Fox River, by the time we celebrated the United States’ 200th birthday, about one-third of the water in the Fox River had already been used at least once by humans or businesses by the time it reached Kendall County.

And then came the Fox Valley’s explosive growth from the 1970s into the first decade of the 21st Century. With that growth, it’s likely the river’s single largest tributary has become the sanitary sewage treatment plants linking the river’s banks. And the relative warmth of that water (it’s slightly warmer, but no less pure than water already in the river thanks to modern wastewater treatment technology) means that nowadays the river seldom freezes between the Fox Valley Water Reclamation District’s huge wastewater treatment plant, located across the river from Boulder Hill, and the pool created behind the Yorkville dam.

Ice Houses

This view of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses north of Oswego, taken about 1890, gives an idea of the size of the company’s ice harvesting operation. (Little White School Museum collection)

As shallow as it is now and historically has been, the Fox River was never a main transportation route, but its dams did provide power for mills, its waters were rich in clams harvested for freshwater pearls and shells for buttons, and in winter its ice was harvested for use in both the home and industry. In fact, huge ice harvesting operations were conducted at each of the dams across the river, including at Yorkville and Oswego. How huge? In 1880, the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice company shipped 581 railcars of ice from Oswego. Of that number, they shipped 124 railcars full of ice from Oswego in August alone. By 1884, the ice company was shipping nearly 1,100 railcars of ice annually.

It’s fortunate cooling technology advanced so far that we don’t require that ice today, because through the impact on the environment of our mere presence here in the Fox Valley, we’ve managed to raise the river’s average temperature so much that it seldom freezes along much of its length in northern Kendall and southern Kane counties.

 

 

 

 

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When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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