Tag Archives: winter

It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.

We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.

Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.

But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.

These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.

My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.

And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.

When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.

The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.

My grandparents’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.

After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.

These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.

I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.

These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.

While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.



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

Northern Illinois winters are still challenging–even with global warming

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.

Northern Illinois’ first inhabitants arrived as they followed the herds of Ice Age animals, that, in turn, were following the retreating glaciers.

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.

Len Tantillo’s fine painting of Native American hunters returning to their winter camp gives a little of the atmosphere of a time when surviving an Illinois winter was not nearly as easy as it is now.

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.

The area’s first pioneer settlers followed roughly the same seasonal rituals as did the Native People they displaced, saving up food during the warm months in order to survive northern Illinois’ often-brutal winters.

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.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s huge ice houses on the east bank of the Fox River about a half mile north of downtown Oswego supplied huge quantities of ice for home and commercial use. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh.

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.”

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, Transportation

Snowy winter days create their own sounds, smells, and memories

Despite the effects of climate change on our Illinois winters, it still gives me a warm feeling to sit here in my office, in the house my great-grandparents built as their retirement home, and watch the flakes drift down during an early winter snowfall.

Downtown, children and adults, all dressed in high-tech, down-filled, rip-stop winter clothing hurry along the sidewalks on their way to and from stores and doctors’ and dentist offices. Today’s clothing is lighter and more comfortable and autos and other pieces of necessary machinery are more dependable, but an Illinois winter’s cold, wind, and snow are constants that conjure up memories of winters and holidays past.

1914 Transition Wastington St. winter1914

You can almost hear the sleigh bells ring looking at this image of Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914 during an early winter snowfall. (Little White School Museum photo)

These days, I chiefly recall that era of decades past by its sounds and smells.

The sound of a small boy walking along a snowy lane with corduroy pants and five-buckle boots seemed unnaturally loud during a quiet early morning snowfall. Each step produced a “whoop-clink!” as first one and then another corduroyed leg noisily brushed against its brother with a rough-soft sound punctuated by the boot buckles’ musical jingle.

If the weather was right and the snowflakes were too, the tiny crackle each one made as it landed could be heard—if a sharp young ear was close enough to a winter coat’s arm.

Trudging along a country road, down a deserted village lane, or across a lonely farmstead, a winter day stroller had plenty of time to get off the road when traffic came from behind. The tire chains everyone used for traction in snow and on ice in those days before snowtires and front-wheel drive heralded each car and truck well in advance, as the chained tires squeaked and jingled and jangled through the snow.

1943 Oswego Winter

Snow’s building up fast in this photo snapped at Main and Washington in Oswego at the end of World War II. (Little White School Museum photo)

During a snowstorm, all the regular daytime sounds were muffled by the dense whiteness as it cascaded to the ground, allowing a keen ear to pick out familiar noises only now and then. Here the scrape of a shovel on a concrete drive or walk, there the joyful cry of a sledder on the way down a steep hill. But mostly, it was quiet as even the noisy English Sparrows sat hunched with their feathers fluffed for warmth, waiting for clear flying weather.

A snowstorm, if you’re paying attention, has a smell all its own. It is a sharp, clean scent that puts a person in mind of those stiffly white, freshly freeze-dried bed sheets our grandmothers once gathered in off their clothes lines in deepest January; an aroma that, I am quite sure, certain businessmen would sell their very souls for, could it be bottled and lined up on store shelves.

Out in back of the chicken house, large icicles hung down from the roof, looking for all the world like stalactites hanging from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave. There is a certain unique beauty in a clear, sharply tapering icicle. And nothing seemed quite so warm and wonderful as, while still grasping that freshly-born crystal clear icicle, going in the door of the chicken house, with its heavy smell of feathers and nesting straw complimented by the sounds of chuckling hens.

Heading back to the house pulling a brand new sled, magnificent in its varnished wood and red painted runners, that just the day before were carefully polished with a bit of steel wool and then waxed with the nub of an old candle, it was easy to imagine Arctic explorers or Eskimo hunters or even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon trudging alongside, sharing the adventures and hardships of a long, frozen journey fraught with all manner of dangers. Do you suppose a polar bear smells anything like a tail-wagging dog after she’s had a happy roll in the snow?

1945 abt Dobbin & sled

The Matile family pony, Dobbin, seems resigned to making the best of things after my sisters harnessed him to their sled.

After stamping and sweeping the snow from boots and snow pants, that wonderful kitchen all grandmothers seemed to possess, with all its special wintertime aromas, provided the perfect welcome. The cheery cookstove, all shiny white porcelain and dull black cast iron, warmed the room and provided, back behind and next to the wall, the perfect haven for a slumbering cat curled up in a cardboard box. Huge fresh-baked sugar cookies and fluted-edged molasses cookies, each with three small half-circles indented (creating dark brown smiley faces way before emojis were a gleam in someone’s digital dreams) cooling on the kitchen counter added a sweet smell of sugar and spice all their own.

The scarf was unwound, the hat and mittens removed, the thick winter coat unbuckled and unzipped. Damp mittens were put on the back of the cookstove to dry, adding a moist wool smell to the room.

Somehow, remarkable designs had appeared overnight on the kitchen windows, with mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful scenes outlined in shining frost. Who was this wintertime Picasso and why did he seem to do his finest work on the windows at Grandmother’s house? Jack Frost did it, was the unsatisfactory explanation.

In this day and age, a snowstorm’s quiet is punctuated by the muffled mechanized roar of neighborhood snowblowers and pickup mounted snowplows, but the delighted squeals of snowbound children, sentenced to frolic with sleds and snow saucers for the day, is still also there, provided you’re willing to listen hard and patiently enough.


A winter’s snowfall erases all of Mother Nature’s mistakes, as this image of the Matile house proves.

The musical chinking of tire chains is mostly absent these days—at least in this part of the country—and the distinctive sounds made by walkers clad in corduroy pants and five buckle boots have given way to the sleeker sounds of nylon trousers and boots apparently modeled on those worn by Moon-walking astronauts. Unfortunately, our modern double-glazed windows have robbed poor old Jack Frost of his best medium; he must be content these days with fewer and fewer suitable single-pane windows—hardly what the old master deserves.

The constant, even after all these years, is the snow itself, creating a thick, soft white blanket that covers carefully manicured lawns and scarred construction sites alike after our infrequent blizzards during this era of warmer winters. But when those infrequent storms hit and for all our modem, efficient snow clearing equipment, the dense white of modern winter storms still slow our bustling suburban lives to an unwanted– but often secretly enjoyed–walk. The trick is to slow down and enjoy it for what it is.



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Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

When surviving winter meant fur and firewood

It’s definitely been an atypical Illinois winter so far. Surprisingly warm weather—the warmest Christmas for 30 years or so—has been punctuated by sub-zero windy weather that literally makes it a pain to go outside.

Living in northern Illinois and surviving both the scorching, humid summers and the cold, windy, (and up until recently, anyway) snowy winters has been a challenge ever since the first settlers arrived following giant herds of woolly mammoths and giant bison and elk during the last Ice Age.


Northern Illinois’ first inhabitants probably arrived following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food, such as mammoths and giant rhinoceroses. Hinting had to continue year round.

Back in those times, the politically correct notion that it’s bad to wear furs was a few hundred centuries away from being dreamed up. Furs, in fact, were required garb during the cold months unless frostbite was the desired result. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what those first Paleo hunters wore because none of their clothing has survived. But we can speculate that they wore moccasins made from thick elk hide, probably lined with mouse nest filling or dried grasses. Animal skin clothing, with the fur on the inside, was also probably very popular with the fashionistas of the era.

In fact, the winter clothing of American Indians didn’t change a whole lot for a few thousand years. When weaving was invented in North America, narrow strips of rabbit skin, tanned with the fur left on, were made into blankets and capes that were warm, and soft besides. Moccasins stuffed with grass were favored right up until shoes and boots were introduced by the Europeans, and sometimes afterwards by both whites and Indians living on the northern frontier.

Snowshoes were required to get around in deep snow, with most Native Americans from this region favoring the smaller and more maneuverable oval “bear paw” design.

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they didn‘t live all that much differently from the Native Americans they displaced, with the exception of their homes. Instead of loaf-shaped bark-covered lodges, American settlers built log cabins with wooden gabled split shake roofs.

Nevertheless, winter was as much a problem for the settlers as it was for the Indians. Log cabins were drafty and cold, and the earliest fireplaces actually had wooden chimneys. Although thickly lined with clay, wooden chimneys often burst into flame. Needless to say, stone or brick chimneys replaced the wooden variety as soon as possible.

The roads the first settlers encountered were no more than faint dirt tracks across the prairie, running from one ford across a creek or river to another. It was actually a bit easier to travel in the winter because the dirt tracks were frozen solid. Spring was the bad time because dirt roadways turned into virtually bottomless quagmires.


Horse-drawn bobsleds are still used on farms and ranches during the winter to haul forage and feed to livestock, and they’re also sometimes still used by small logging operations in New England and elsewhere.

Sleds and sleighs were used for winter transport for people and freight alike. During the winter months, animals were slaughtered and then the frozen carcasses were hauled to market in Chicago on bobsleds, usually pulled by ox teams. Early on, both pork and beef were transported from the countryside to Chicago in this manner, where the carcasses were salted or smoked, to be shipped east via the Great Lakes or used for food by the residents of the growing city. Real change in that process had to wait a couple decades before railroads reached Chicago.

The only heat available in those earliest of log cabins was firewood. And it took a LOT of wood to heat even a small cabin. Pioneers generally chopped about 30 cords a winter, a cord being a tight stack of wood measuring four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Firewood was so valuable, in fact, that several of the county’s groves were subdivided into woodlots owned by farmers in the surrounding prairie. Wood, it was said then, warmed you twice, once when cut and split, and again when burned.

Meanwhile, down at the local mill dam, the millers had to work hard to keep the ice from damaging their machinery. Periodically, ice had to be broken away from the millraces and sluice gates that powered the turbine-style mill wheels. While the activity was going on, there was always a danger that a worker would fall through the ice and drown.

After rail lines began running along the Fox River in later years, the ice itself was turned into a commercial product. Each winter, the thick ice that formed behind the mill dams at Yorkville and Oswego and other Fox Valley towns was harvested using horse-drawn ice plows and hand ice saws. The blocks were hauled to shore by teams of horses, and stored in huge ice houses along the river bank. During the summer, the ice was transported to Aurora and Chicago via rail car, where it was used to keep food from spoiling through the use of iceboxes.

It wasn’t until the advent of the automobile that roads had to be kept reasonably clear of snow. Unlike horse-drawn sleighs, autos could not travel overland across the frozen fields, but had to keep to the roadways.

Dashing through the snow

A one-horse open sleigh dashing through the snow was a common sight in town and country alike until the first couple decades of the 20th Century.

Nowadays, we expect the snowplows to head out at the first sign of snow, and demand that salt, sand, or both be spread on icy streets and roads as soon as possible. The idea of hitching up old Dobbin to a sleigh and heading off across country is only remembered when we sing a few choruses of “Jingle Bells,” and even then I suspect a lot of folks don’t understand what the song’s words mean. For instance, what are “jingle bells” and why would they “make spirits bright”?

Granted, things are a lot more complicated these days, but they are also a lot more comfortable. It’s doubtful folks would tolerate packing their moccasins with dried grass each morning before heading off to work in a one-horse open sleigh. Instead, we sit in our warm autos wrapped in goose down coats and listen to weather reports detailing the wind chill factor and predicting weather based on satellite photos and Doppler radar.

Once in a while I muse about what it would be like to go back to the good old days of Model T’s with side curtains, horse drawn open sleighs, and fireplace heated homes. But not for very long.



Filed under Environment, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Technology

Yellow Jack a no-show on this Florida vacation…

So after spending February 2014 mostly chasing my snowblower up and down our driveway, I decided it might be prudent to get the heck out of northern Illinois during February 2015.

February has always been a problematical month here on the prairies west of Lake Michigan. It’s not for nothing that the Native Peoples who lived here when the settlers arrived called February’s full moon the “Full Snow Moon.”

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Of course back then, while there was a lot of snow, the good news was that the wetlands that dotted the prairie were frozen solid, and there weren’t any flies or mosquitoes to deal with. And that meant no ague—which we call malaria these days. The roads during the settlement era were mere tracks and traces (thus the title of the monograph on area roads and stagecoach travel I wrote: By Trace and Trail) that morphed into bottomless muddy quagmires whenever a brief winter thaw happened. So February, with all its snow, was usually a month for good sleighing.

Farmers generally took their wagon boxes and hayracks off their running gears and put them on bobsled gears when the snow built up so they could haul feed to their own livestock and take the occasional load of grain to the grain elevator in town to sell or have ground into coarse flour to feed the hogs and chickens.

Actually, opting out of the Fox Valley for the winter really isn’t anything new. On May 20, 1875, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Kinney have returned in the best of health and spirits from about a seven months’ sojourn in southern California.”

California was really the thing for quite a while if you wanted to avoid the worst of a northern Illinois winter. But slowly, Florida began to be mentioned as a destination. Early on, folks avoided Florida like the plague. Because, it just wasn’t a very healthy place to live, even though some local folks decided to take their chances anyway.

For instance, in October 1878, Oswego was all agog with the plans of the George Avery family, who had decided to sell out and move to Florida. They sold all the household goods that they couldn’t carry, and sold their house to Anton Miller. Then young George headed south to Utica, where he built a boat.

As the Record reported on Oct. 17: “Mrs. Lucy Avery with the children depart this morning to join her husband, and old George Avery at Utica, where they have been building a boat in which the party will embark for Florida or at least go in the same as far as New Orleans.”

By late November, the family, consisting of George and Lucy and their three daughters, George’s father, nicknamed “The General,” and their cats and dogs had reached the Mississippi above St. Louis. They eventually made their way all the way to Florida, and sent back such glowing reports that George’s brother, Ed, decided to sell out in Oswego and head down there, too.

On Oct. 2, 1879, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported he’d had a letter from the venturesome Avery family:

“Who does not like to be remembered and thought well of by the children? Was especially pleased to receive a letter from Allie Avery the other day with an alligator cuticle inclosed for a watch charm. The family went away from here over a year ago, spent the winter in Missouri, early in the spring went to Florida and chose Pensacola for their new home. Miss Allie also sent me a full record of the temperature of that locality for August, the hottest month they had, which shows the thermometer to have stood between 70 and 93 in the daytime, the latter point reached on the ninth; the average of the month at 7 a.m. was about 78, at noon 87, and 6 p.m. 80, and there were 12 days scattered through the month on which they had rain. Ed Avery, who sold out his house-hold goods and other effects Saturday, will also start for that region in a short time.”

Ed and family left Oswego Oct. 8, and headed south to join his father, brother, and family.

On Feb. 12, 1880, Rank reported he’d received another letter from young Lucy Avery:

“Received word the other day from the Oswegoans now residing in Florida by letter from Mrs. Lucy Avery in which she gave me a record of the temperature at Pensacola during January, the coldest month of the year, of which the following is the average of the thermometer: At 6 a.m., about 59; noon, 67; and 6 p.m., 63. The old General, too, sends me his respects with the advice that this is the country for old chaps.”

All wasn’t sweetness and light, of course. In September 1880, Rank said he’d received news of a near-tragedy involving the family: “It is said that Ed. Avery with a part of his family while out boating in Pensacola bay was overtaken by the big storm down there and compelled to put into a cove where they had to remain all night; that another boatload in their company were drowned by capsizing.”

“The Old General” was the first of the Florida Averys to die, although it seems to have been more old age that claimed him than any disease. Reported Rank in early November 1881: “The information was received yesterday by his wife and brother that George W. Avery, ‘the Old General,’ who several years ago in company with his son went to Pensacola, Florida died there very suddenly. The bell was tolled for him this morning.”

And maybe Ed should have seen the boating mishap as a portent, because he was the next to go, but this time it was no accident and it wasn’t old age. It was yellow fever.

At the time, one of the main reasons folks tended to avoid Florida was the tendency of yellow fever epidemics to break out. Yellow fever is one of hemorrhagic fevers—as is Ebola—but it’s far less contagious and is only spread by mosquitoes that have bitten infected people. However, no one knew that at the time and the occasional outbreaks of the deadly disease were terrifying.

Pensacola had been yellow fever free since 1874, and residents had let their guard down. Malaria was common, but not the deadly Yellow Jack. But then the Spanish bark Saletra arrived at the port of Pensacola with three sick crewmen aboard. The first night the ship was in port, one of the mates suddenly died of yellow fever. Panicky officials ordered the ship into quarantine, but it was apparently too late. Next stricken was Captain Bartolo, of the Italian bark Vincenzo Accamé, who died the same day he fell ill, and from there the disease spread quickly until it claimed one of the Oswego Averys.

In the Oct. 19, 1882 Kendall County Record, Rank reported the distressing news: “The sad intelligence was received last week that Ed Avery had died at Pensacola, Florida from yellow fever.”

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow.

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow. And we didn’t see a single case of Yellow Jack.

The epidemic finally burned itself out without taking any more Avery lives.

So that was on my mind as we headed south to spend February in Cape Coral, a relatively new town carved out of the mangrove swamps along the Caloosahatchee River starting in 1957. Today, the place is huge and features more than 400 miles of canals, most of which link to the river, whose mouth is on the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news was we got all the way through February without hearing about a single case of Yellow Jack. The traffic might kill you down there, but we didn’t see a single mosquito, much less the homicidal little Aedes aegypti that would sooner give you yellow fever than look at you.

In fact, we liked it so much we are probably going back down next year, especially since we kept up with the weather news (it wasn’t pretty) from the Fox Valley while we were there—along with no mosquitoes, we didn’t see any snow either, which was a big plus for me. And the food was pretty good, too.

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February snow blogging…

Looking out across the Fox River Valley from our second floor bedroom windows, we can see the river has more of its surface frozen over than any time in the last few decades.

Which isn’t surprising given this year’s invasion of the “polar vortex.” Knocked off it’s usual orbit over the Arctic by unusually warm weather in Alaska and Canada, the vortex has spun subzero temperatures down into the Lower 48, all the way south to the Old Confederacy.

Last year, the ice skating rink the Oswegoland Park District maintains on Briarcliff Lake up in Montgomery’s Seasons Ridge Subdivision was scarcely opened a single day. This year, the green “safe” flag has been regularly flying, inviting hardy pleasure and hockey skaters to try their luck.

And because of all that cold weather, the river has finally cooled off enough for much of its surface to freeze. Most recent years, the river only froze sporadically as warmer temperatures and warmer river water meant a free and open stream that thousands of Canada geese and ducks of various species enjoyed. Now, with more and more of the river’s surface covered with ice, the numbers of geese and ducks has decreased a little as they moved elsewhere to find open water.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

The cold also persuaded larger than usual numbers of Bald Eagles to leave their usual wintering grounds along the frozen Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Fox River Valley in search of enough open water to allow them to fish. With the extended cold spell this winter, there are fewer of the big, distinctive birds, but a few weeks ago, folks were counting them by the dozen on the six-mile stretch between Oswego and Montgomery. Some drivers were so dumbfounded by seeing whole flocks of the giant birds that they simply stopped right in the middle of Ill. Route 25 to gawk.

The good news on the eagle front is that the species has apparently walked back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to bans on DDT and other pesticides that traveled up the food chain to plague the eagle population, we’ve got a breeding pair right here in Oswego. My good friend Glenn watched Mr. and Mrs. Eagle raise their eaglet this year in a nest they built in a tree on an island in the river, easily monitored from Glenn’s upstairs deck.

Time was, there were no eagles around these parts, much less geese and ducks, except the tame ones raised by farmers. We built a blind back in the early 1960s on one of the river’s islands, and tried duck hunting for three years in a row, and never saw a single duck—except the high-flying Vs during the fall and spring migrations. Same with geese; it was a big deal when a flock of the big birds flew over heading north or south, depending on the season. Nowadays, with somewhere north of 60,000 of the giant (and obnoxious) birds living in the Fox Valley full-time, a bunch of the birds flying over doesn’t even rate a second look.

For most of us, the winter’s extreme cold has not been life threatening, so there’s that. We don’t have to worry about freezing temperatures inside our homes as long as we keep sending checks to NiGas and ComEd. But the time was, that wasn’t the case. Back in January 1873, the Kendall County Record reported: “Scores of our people are mourning the loss of cherished house plants by frost during the past week, while a great number have their cellars lumbered with vegetables rendered worthless in like manner.”

And back in that day and age, losing those  vegetables was a big problem, since so many folks depended on canned and otherwise preserved fruits and vegetables from their own gardens and orchards to survive.

Two years later, another extreme cold snap hit Kendall County, with Record editor John R. Marshall reporting: “We have been congratulating ourselves for some time over the mild winter and glorying over the light calls upon the fuel pile. But Old King Winter was not satisfied to let us off so easily and last Friday night with the assistance of Old Boreas, he sent the mercury down to zero—down to ten below; and not yet satisfied Saturday morning, the thermometer indicated from 20 to 25 below, according to location. All the night the wind blew a hurricane and the icy air entered at every crevice. Leaky cellars were no protection to vegetables, and potatoes were icy balls in the morning. Plants were frozen by wholesale and housewives mourned the loss of their favorites.”

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

And then there was the big blizzard of January 1918. That year, my grandfather left his home on Hinman Street in Aurora for work at the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops on South Broadway, and he didn’t get home for two weeks. CB&Q officials loaded every able body they could lay hands on aboard trains and sent them west to hand-shovel the main line.

On Jan. 9, 1918, the Record reported: “The blizzard which visited this part of the country Sunday was one of the most severe in years. The old-timers had a great time telling of what happened in ’48, but the younger ones were satisfied that this storm was a corker. Snow started falling Saturday night and continued with unabated fury all day Sunday and well into the night. A high wind accompanied the snow and filled the roads and walks with immense drifts. Traffic of every kind was stopped except on the Morris line. Superintendent Miller and his crews had cars going all night to avoid a tie-up. Aurora traffic stopped at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning and was not resumed till Tuesday night. One car lay in Yorkville all that time while another was held at Oswego. Trains on the Burlington were delayed and the mail carriers were unable to make their regular trips. Fortunately, the temperature stayed about 20 degrees above zero during the storm. On Tuesday morning, however, the mercury went to 12 below.”

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

A corker indeed. And, in more modern times, of course, we should not forget the Winter of 1979, when snow became piled so high, it hid entire buildings, not to mention every fire hydrant in town.

Us 21st Century residents have gotten a taste of Old Boreas—the Greek god of the north wind—this year as well, with wind chill warnings regularly reporting temps below -20° F. Nowadays, we have Thinsulate and down-filling and all manner of other modern miracles with which to defeat cold weather. And just like last summer’s high temperatures, we’ll just have to grin and bear the Winter of ‘14 until Boreas or Tom Skilling or someone decides it’s time to warm up a bit around these parts. At least we’ll have something to tell our grandchildren, so there’s that.

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The Winter of the Deep Snow…

It’s still cold here in northern Illinois, and likely to get quite a bit colder. Next Monday, the low is predicted to be -20° F., which is cold in anyone’s book.

There’s quite a bit of snow on the ground, too, with more predicted during the next few days. So far, this has been the snowiest winter around these parts since the big snow of 1978-79.

But when it gets cold like this, most of us are fortunate enough to live in homes with central heat, even if it is costing us an arm and a leg to pay every time the furnace or boiler kicks on.

This year’s weather invites comparisons with some of Illinois’ past memorable winters. And while it’s been cold and snowy, it hasn’t held a candle to the winter of 1830-31, known forever after by the unlucky few pioneer families living in the Fox Valley back then as “The Winter of the Deep Snow.” It was so memorable, in fact, that it became definitive. As historian Jon Musgrave wrote: “The Winter of the Deep Snow became a dating point in pioneer legend. Residence in the Illinois country before that date was qualification for members in Old Settlers associations and special designation as a ‘Snow Bird.’ One pioneer wrote: ‘I have my Snow Bird badge which was given me at the Old Settlers’ meeting at Sugar Grove. I prize it very highly and would not trade it for a hundred wild turkeys running at large in Oregon.’”

According to one account, the really bad weather began with a cold rain on Dec. 20, 1830 which then changed to sleet and snow until a six inch snowfall on Christmas Eve. Then the wind blew, creating huge drifts. Then came more rain and then sub-zero weather, forming a crust atop the snow that in places would bear the weight of men and anilmals In other places, it wasn’t quite thick enough for that and made extremely slow going across the prairie.

Dr. Julian M. Sturtevan of Jacksonville, Ill., kept a journal during the winter and noted that: “For weeks, certainly for not less that two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher that 12 degrees below zero. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest, day and night. The air was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and almost stopped the breath of anyone who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of time, make his way on foot against it.”

As 1830 turned from summer to autumn and then early winter, there were still relatively few hardy pioneers living in the Fox and DuPage River valleys. And none of them were really prepared for the harsh winter that was coming.

Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After weathering the brutal winter of 1830-31, Hobson opened a mill on the DuPage River at Naper's Settlement, now Naperville.

Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After weathering the brutal winter of 1830-31, Hobson opened a mill on the DuPage River at Naper’s Settlement, now Naperville.

Bailey Hobson rode horseback from his home in Orange County, located in southwestern Indiana, to northern Illinois in May 1830, prospecting for land to settle. Armed only with a pocket knife, he looked at land between the Fox and DuPage rivers, eventually selecting a site in the timber below Newark. He cut trees to mark his claim and then headed back to Indiana to get his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson, and his children.

Hobson was adventurous, but wasn’t particularly wise about settling during the frontier era. The family didn’t leave Indiana until Sept. 1, 1830, well along in the season. They arrived at Holderman’s Grove in what would one day become Kendall County 21 days later and then traveled to his claim where he built a rude camp for the family while he completed their log cabin.

The family’s supplies were running low, and it was far too late in the season to plant any crops, so Hobson climbed aboard his horse and headed west looking to buy flour. He crossed the Vermilion River and went all the way to the Oxbow Prairie near modern Hennepin, finding no flour to be had, but did find some pork to buy. He promised to return for it later and headed back home, where, although supplies were running low, there was sufficient food for a while.

Even though the food situation was nagging, Hobson continued to prospect for better land. And he found it to the east along the DuPage River. He and his brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, traveled there in early December and staked a claim with the intent of working on a new cabin. But that night—Dec. 20—the first of what would be a nearly unending string of snow and windstorms struck. The DuPage froze over and Stewart and Hobson had to break the ice and lead their oxen across. It took a few days, but the two exhausted men finally made it back to the Hobson claim where his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson was looking after the children and the family’s livestock.

Clarissa Stewart Hobson's iron determination and courage got her children through the Winter of the Deep Snow as her husband left to find food for the family.

Clarissa Stewart Hobson’s iron determination and courage got her children through the Winter of the Deep Snow as her husband left to find food for the family.

It was nearly Christmas, the time Hobson had told the Oxbow people he would return for his pork, and so once again Hobson left his family to head west, leaving Stewart to look after the wife and children. He was gone 19 days, and was nearly lost on the prairie during a blizzard, but finally made it back to the cabin with the pork only to find that his family was down to the last of their corn meal.

It was clear to Hobson that the family needed more provisions or they’d starve. So he and Stewart determined to head off to get provisions elsewhere, leaving Clarissa home to look after the children and livestock. They took a yoke of oxen to break a trail through the snow, leaving 13 head of cattle and three horses for Clarissa to look after, as well as the children.

Two days after the men left, a two day storm dumped three feet of snow on the Hobson claim, followed by a three day windstorm and freezing temperatures. Immediately after the snow fell, Clarissa bundled up and trudged to the nearby spring to get water, but then the hurricane force windstorm hit, and she was forced to dump the water and sprint to safety at the cabin through the wind. The children opened the cabin door for her and then it took all their strength to close it again against the force of the storm. They didn’t go out again for three days.

Before his death in 1850, Bailey Hobson built a large, successful mill on the DuPage River at modern Naperville.

Before his death in 1850, Bailey Hobson built a large, successful mill on the DuPage River at modern Naperville.

When the wind finally stopped, the livestock were nowhere to be found, but they slowly straggled back to the lonely cabin, ha

ving weathered the storm in the lea of the grove where the Hobson cabin stood.

The firewood that had been stockpiled in the cabin had now been exhausted, so Clarissa made her way to the family’s wood pile, only to find it a solid mass of ice. Using a pickax, she was able to free enough wood to keep the cabin’s fire burning. The spring was buried in drifts, but Clarissa was able to melt snow for drinking water.

Hobson obitOn the 14th day after he left, Bailey finally returned with part of the provisions he and Stewart had procured. And it was just in time. Clarissa and the children had burned all the wood he and Stewart had stockpiled and Clarissa was in the process of tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for firewood.

Eight days later, Stewart arrived with the rest of the food, the oxen pulling the sledge limping and bleeding from breaking through the crust on top of the snow.

That spring, the Hobsons moved east to their new claim on the DuPage River becoming some of the first settlers in modern Naperville, and some of its most respected residents, having survived The Winter of the Deep Snow.

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Maybe it really is an old-fashioned winter…

The other day I heard somebody remark that we’re having a real old-fashioned winter this year.

But people have been saying that about northern Illinois winters for decades now.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers' wagons and bobsleds.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers’ wagons and bobsleds.

For instance, in the Dec. 27, 1916 Kendall County Record, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall observed: “No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled] go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

On Jan. 18, 1922, Marshall returned to the theme: “Kendall county has been experiencing some real, old-fashioned winter weather. The boys and girls are enjoying skating and in many communities the annual ice crop is being harvested. The mercury has threatened zero for several mornings but has not yet reached it. With beautiful sunny days and moonlight nights, no one has worried about the temperature.”

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Fox Valley experienced some pretty cold, snowy winters, too. Nighttime temperatures dipped to -20° F. and the Fox River froze solid from the warm outflow of the Aurora Sanitary District’s treatment plant at opposite Boulder Hill, all the way south of the Oswego bridge.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

Back in those “old-fashioned” days somewhere around 50 percent of the water in the river was “fresh,” meaning it came from tributaries. Nowadays, somewhere under 20 percent of the river’s water is “fresh,” while 80 percent or more of it has already been used at least once by somebody upstream. With the river’s major tributaries now consisting of sanitary treatment plants of one kind or another, the water is heated sufficiently to keep it from freezing solid.

In addition, until the past few weeks, winter temperatures simply haven’t been as cold as they used to be.

That has drawn lots of new visitors to the river, including tens of thousands of Canada geese, ducks of various species, and, especially this year, whole flocks of Bald Eagles. During the two weeks just past, drivers along Ill. Route 25 reported anywhere from 38 to 61 eagles sitting in trees along the banks of the Fox.

But that’s now. Back in the day, the river froze solid, often for weeks at a time. And that meant great ice-skating. From my neighborhood in Oswego, we could skate south to the U.S. Route 34 bridge in Oswego, even farther if we wanted; and we could skate north all the way to Boulder Hill, as long as we kept near the eastern bank to avoid the ASD plant’s outflow.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven't gotten quite this much snow this year.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven’t gotten quite this much snow this year.

Skating had long been a popular activity on the river. John Marshall, writing in the Kendall County Record on Jan. 13, 1892 noted that: “The ice [company] men were happy over the cold wave that struck this vicinity last week and the young people were also in a good mood because the skating was good.”

It was so popular, in fact, that a move to establish a curfew for young people in Oswego caused much consternation among the ice skating crowd. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 16, 1898: “Some of the school girls became much alarmed by thinking that the curfew institution would prevent them from moonlight skating after 7:30, but were much relieved when told that the river was outside the corporation and beyond jurisdiction of the marshal.”

Ice-skating was still popular in the 1960s, as I noted above, and not only with us kids who liked skating on the river. Aurora city officials always created an ice rink at Phillips Park to which lots of us would repair in the evening since it was lighted. When the Oswegoland Park District finally built their civic center in Boulder Hill, the parking lot was designed to be flooded in the winter and turned into a skating rink. That lasted until the park board realized that the freeze-thaw cycle was dismantling their parking lot, one crack at a time.

The nice thing about living in river towns like Yorkville and Oswego back then was that there were conveniently located hills kids could use for sledding. Back then, maintenance crews weren’t quite so quick to salt, sand, or cinder-coat municipal streets. As Hugh Marshall, again, wrote in January 1915: “While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

In Oswego, street coasting had a fine old history. On Feb. 9, 1887, Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was quite a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of old and young would gather there to engage in the fun or at least witness it. The only accident in connection with it was the spraining of an ear by Roy Pogue.”

Sledding was still popular in 1901on the Benton Street hill. Rank reported that: “Neil, the youngest of Lew young’s boys, broke a leg while coasting, of which he won’t have any more this season but will be all right for playing marbles as he is doing well.”

Although we were unaware of such sledding traditions when we were kids, we unwittingly continued what our grandparents and great-grandparents started. During cold winters, we’d ice down the Second Street hill near my house for particularly good sledding. The trick was to make the curve at the bottom where Second meets North Adams Street, because missing that meant a tree-strewn trip through the woods at the bottom of the hill. Not necessarily safe, but pretty exciting.

These days, things are a lot more structured, and have to be, I suppose, because there so many more people round and about. Ice-skating is impossible on the river, and it’s not often that some civic group will create an outdoor rink like the old Oswego Jaycees did at Boulder Hill School for several years. Sledding has become a more chancy thing, with coasting hills frowned upon due to liability concerns. But after a good snowfall, it’s not too difficult to drive around the area and see folks enjoying some time on the slopes, no matter how gentile they may be, as another Illinois winter does its thing in the Fox River Valley.

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Okay, it’s cold and snowy, but at least we’re not living in log cabins

 So here we are at the Matile Manse, hunkered down while Winter Storm Ion has its way with us. Personally, I think naming winter storms is dorky, but then again I suppose we have to call them something.

Cold, snowy winters have been a rarity the past several years, but it looks as if the Winter of 2013-14 will be one to remember.

Even with our milder winters lately, northern Illinois is not, even during the best of winters, the place you want to be if you can’t stand cold, snowy, and wet weather. Given the state’s orientation, extending more than 350 miles straight south from the tip of Lake Michigan, Illinois tends to be the recipient of all sorts of interesting weather coming out of the north, west, and south, from summer dust storms to winter blizzards. And it’s always been so.

For instance, the winter of 1779-80 was said to have been one of the worst ones ever experienced on what was at that time the nation’s far western frontier. According to one source, local Indian tribes referred to that winter as “The Great Cold.” Whole herds of wild animals were said to have perished in the cold and snow, and Native American residents were hard-pressed to survive during the worst of it.

Tradition says Illinois' population of bison was virtually eradicated by a severe winter shortly after 1800. The last wild bison east of the Mississippi was shot in Indiana in 1830.

Tradition says Illinois’ population of bison was virtually eradicated by a severe winter shortly after 1800. The last wild bison east of the Mississippi was shot in Indiana in 1830.

Another hard winter shortly after the turn of the 19th Century is said to have killed off hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of the state’s native bison, leaving piles of their bones bleaching on the prairies.

But during both of those hard winters, there were few pioneers in northern Illinois to record either the weather or their reactions to it. Not until the late 1820s did settlement of Illinois north of Peoria get a good start, and even then, the prairies from Galena south to Peoria, were mostly occupied by Native Americans.

As the decade of the 1830s opened, however, the state was struck by a winter so brutal the area’s earliest settlers used it ever after to mark who was and who was not an “old settler.” Generally, those who arrived before the winter of 1830-31, dubbed the Winter of the Deep Early Snow, could claim that status, while later arrivals were considered mere pioneers.

Starting in late December 1830, snow fell continuously well into January 1831 to a depth of 3 feet on the level, according to those who lived through it. Then a flash warm-up followed by a sudden rain struck the northern part of the state, immediately followed by sub-zero temperatures. The result of this weather whiplash was a crust of ice on the snow, described by many of those old settlers as “nearly, if not quite, strong enough to bear a man.” That was then followed by several more inches of snow after which the skies cleared.

But those clear skies brought sharply colder temperatures, followed by strong northwest winds that blew for days on end. “For weeks, certainly not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than 12 degrees below zero,” one pioneer recalled.

The icy crust over the deep snow prevented livestock from digging down through the snow cover to prairie grass for food, as well as severely hampering travel and importation of food. Game became nonexistent, and starvation stalked northern Illinois’ scattered settlements.

Pioneers were forced to make some wrenching decisions. Many of the men set off for Indiana’s Wabash Valley where food was available, leaving their families to fend for themselves. Bailey Hobson, who had settled in what is today Kendall County’s Big Grove Township, struggled east to find food for his family, arriving back at his cabin weeks later just in time to save his family from starving to death.

Abraham Lincoln and William F. Berry opened their store in New Salem in 1830. By the time the

Abraham Lincoln and William F. Berry opened their store in New Salem in 1830. By the time the Sudden Change Day struck Illinois, Lincoln had moved to Springfield to practice law.

As the 1830s wore on, erratic weather continued to plague the settlers on the Illinois prairies. On Dec. 20, 1836, a ferocious, fast-moving storm  howled through northern Illinois, leaving an indelible impression on the settlers then struggling to create new homes. Ever after, the day would be recalled as Sudden Change Day, Cold Tuesday, or The Cold Day in Illinois.

Monday, Dec. 19 had been relatively warm and rain had fallen, leaving snow melting into slush across the region. Then the front came through with a vicious temperature drop of more than 40° F., accompanied by strong winds. According to meteorologist Dr. Keith C. Heidorn, on Dec. 19, a Colorado low moved east along a frontal boundary lying across the northern plains. Shortly before sunrise on Dec. 20, the front was speeding across Iowa and on into Illinois with frigid arctic air howling in behind it.

North of Peoria in Lacon Township, a settler named Spencer Ellsworth later recalled: “The morning was mild, with a settled rain gradually changing the snow on the ground into a miserable slush. Suddenly a black cloud came sweeping over the sky from the northwest, accompanied by a roaring wind as the cold wave struck the land, the rain and slush were changed in a twinkling to ice.”

Other stories Heidorn collected report chickens frozen into the ice while standing on one leg, and men caught out on horseback who reportedly froze to their saddles and had to be lifted off and carried to a fire to be thawed apart.

The front reached the Indiana border by 6 p.m. Residents of Detroit and Cincinnati recorded it passing about 9 p.m. Gales roaring with the front hit Lake Erie, grounding two ships off Sandusky, Ohio and toppling chimneys in Buffalo, N.Y.

For many settlers, however, the Sudden Change was forced to the background of memory by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837.

It’s been pretty cold the past few weeks, and we’ve gotten a fair amount of snow as well. But if our ancestors could stick it out in log cabin days, who are we to complain too much in this day and age?


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It was once a real winter wonderland around these parts…

Our white Christmases seem to be getting a little thin on the ground lately. We seem to have had our snow early, followed by rain and ice and whatnot. As I write this, the snow cover we had has greatly diminished.

But then again, old-timers have always complained winters were lots worse when they were youngsters. And since I seem to have become a certified old-timer, it’s practically my job to insist we had colder weather and more snow when I was growing up in the 1950s on a Wheatland Township farm. In my defense, the official snowfall statistics for the area compiled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources appear to back up those childhood memories. So maybe it’s not just the ravings of an old misanthrope after all.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

According to those records, the biggest single month’s snow ever recorded in the area was in December of 1951. At 36.4 inches, it is still the all-time champ among local snowy months. Which is sort of odd, when you think about it, because historically, we generally get most of each winter’s snow in January and February. But then again, the big snows often seem to come relatively early in the winter.

The winter before that, the area had gotten over 20 inches of snow in December. It must have seemed as if we were entering a new Ice Age.

I remember that snowy 1951 December because my uncle was working part-time that winter driving a snowplow for Wheatland Township. For a little kid, it was a very impressive piece of equipment. And on that snowy Christmas Day when we were ready to go to my grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner, Uncle Gerald came past with the snowplow and cleared our way the three miles to my grandparents’ farm. Then, like now, it helped to know the right guy.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles' place about 1950 on my father's bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles’ place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

Winters in those years were special to me, as they often are to children. Each winter, my parents hosted hayrides using the bobsled running gear that was parked out behind the barn the rest of the year. Every winter, my dad would put a hayrack on the running gear, hook it up behind one of our tractors, and pull everyone down the country roads near our farm. Bigger kids hooked their sleds onto the bobsled with ropes and performed daring maneuvers as the tractor made its steady way down the road, while the adults and little kids rode on bales of hay on the hayrack, well covered with blankets and quilts.

Occasionally during those years, my sisters would take me sledding to the abandoned gravel pit a quarter mile north of our house. The walls of the old pit seemed nearly vertical to me, providing a fast thrilling ride to the bottom. Afterwards, my sisters would make hot cocoa on the stove and play their 78-rpm records.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard's "Winter Wonderland" has been a winter classic since it's release in 1934.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard’s “Winter Wonderland” has been a winter classic since it’s release in 1934.

I remember the first time I heard “Winter Wonderland” on my sisters’ record player, and thinking it was pretty neat that someone had recorded a song about our neighborhood. Dick Smith and Felix Bernard wrote the song in 1934, and by the 1950s, the tune had become a winter standard. “Sleigh bells ring, Are you listening? In the lane, Snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight, Walking in a winter wonderland,” seemed to nicely describe our yearly hayrides, even though the horses had been retired by the 1950s. But we did have a lane, of sorts, although it was lots shorter than the neighbors’ to the north. Although more of a driveway, the snow on it really did glisten.

The song seemed to describe a lot of familiar things: “In the meadow we can build a snowman, And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No, man, But you can do the job when you’re in town.’”

We built lots of snowmen, and I kept pestering my sisters about the exact location of our meadow so we could get it just right. Turns out, our farm was meadowless. We did have a pasture, though, and my mother said pastures and meadows were pretty much the same, suggesting the pasture was just as good a place for the snowman as a meadow. It also had a handy slough where my sisters ice skated.

In addition, we really had a “Parson Brown” out in the country, although we called him Reverend Brown and I don’t know anyone who actually made a snowman in his image, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we'd warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we’d warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

The song nicely captured the feeling of coming inside after playing or working in the winter: “Later on, we’ll conspire, As we dream by the fire. We’ll face unafraid, The plans that we made, Walking in a winter wonderland.”

Walking around the farm in winter provided lots of sensory stimuli. It was always surprising how warm it was in the barn. Even with no heat, the cow and the other animals housed there managed to keep the temperature seemingly lots warmer than outside. And the barn’s rich smells melded into a single aroma that old farmers always recognize.

But heading into the house after hours spent outdoors hiking or sledding was always the biggest treat for me. There’s nothing quite like coming into a house from cold winter weather and smelling cookies baking—my family was big on cookies.

We had no fireplace on the farm, but we would make plans for what we would do the next day when we once again ventured outside. Arranging snow-covered mittens on the furnace register, putting our five-buckle boots carefully out of the way, and hanging up our coats was the prelude to relaxing and listening to records or the radio.

As the winter dusk would deepen into night, my dad would sit down to read the paper, my mother would pick up her crocheting or a magazine, and tunes like “Winter Wonderland” would softly fill the house in those days gone but hardly forgotten.


Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events