Oswego: the First Twenty Years
Published in the Kendall County Courier, September 5, 1855
Edited and compiled by Elmer Dickson
It is now but twenty years since the site of the present village of Oswego, was the hunting ground of the Indian chief Waubonsie and his warriors. Beneath the wide spreading branches of yonder oaks, which lift their heads high above the surrounding county, once was the Wigwam of old Walaska and his charming daughter, the River Pearl. Romance has woven its spell around its memories. Yonder field of corn was once the abode of the wild deer, the buffalo, the wolf, and their yet more wild and rude companion, the red man of the forest. Here, where the brick walls line the busy street, was nothing except a solitary and rudely constructed Indian wigwam.
Behold the change that has taken place. How altered is the scene! The sod has been broken and fields of grain have superseded wide spreading prairie with its green grassy garment. A thriving village takes the place of the Pottawatomie huts, and the shrill whistle of the locomotive has superseded the Indians war whoop. Wonderful transformation! Who can realize it? Truth is stranger than fiction, and it needs not the latter to lend interest to our theme.
We propose giving a few brief notices of Oswego, from its origin to the present time. These have principally been gathered from conversations with John H. Wormley and other old settlers. We can go back no further than the memory and experience of the first white settlers. Beyond this all is blank. Its historic page is blotted out.
About the year 1833, a solitary wagon drawn by a span of horses might be seen, wending its way over the prairies, with nothing to guide it except the Indian trail. Within that wagon was a man, his wife and child, who had left their friends and all, in search of a home, a paradise in the west. He had seen rich soil, passed fruitful valleys, and situations possessing all the advantages that heart could wish; yet the object of his search was not reached. His beau ideal not yet obtained. Onward he passed, right on! His journey is at an end. This is the paradise, the home he has been so long seeking. "Here will I pitch my tent and spend my days." Such were the first impressions of the first white settler, on the banks of the majestic Fox. Much was to be done to make this a fit dwelling place for civilized man. The soil must be broke, the seed sown, and a livelihood obtained.
Except for a few Indian traders, our oldest inhabitants in this vicinity are Samuel Devoe and John H. Wormley. They emigrated from New York in 1833, and have been here ever since. To Mr. Devoe belongs the important distinction of being the oldest inhabitant. We are satisfied that at the time of his locating here, he would not have dared to predict what Oswego would be in 1855. Chicago was then an insignificant place, containing a half dozen families. It was almost unknown and unworthy a name. All country included within the bounds of Kendall County was wild and uncultivated with not a white inhabitant except Holderman and Hollenback, and their families, in the southern part of the county. The first pioneers had much to contend with. The Indians were continually committing their depredations. Many a sleepless night was passed by these hardy adventurers, in expectation that the next moment would find them reeking in their own blood, victims of the tomahawk or scalping knife. The scene of the first efforts of civilization, in obtaining a livelihood in this vicinity is about one mile and a half from this spot. Some of the remains of that settler's cabin are still to be seen. The first house built within the present limits of Oswego village, was of logs and stood near the present site of Mr. Loucks corncrib. Although the country was rapidly filling up with settlers, it was a long time before Oswego assumed the appearance of a burg. A store was finally opened, near the present residence of Dr. Jewell. Mr. Osborne was the proprietor. A tavern was the next thing that could show a sign, or begging board. It was situated near the present site of Coffin's grocery store. Additions were continually made, and the new fledgling of a city soon boasted of a name. The first name was Hudson and then Oswego. [People may have called the settlement Hudson but its first official name was Lodi.] The town was noted for the amount of whiskey drank, the number of fights and drunken rows, the results of which were bloody noses and black eyes. This trait of character was not confined to Oswego alone. The early history of the whole west is prolific of such scenes, particularly when the land came into market. Collisions between speculators and actual settlers, of the most exciting character stain its early history. Nor was Oswego exempt from such scenes. The lands now owned by the Messrs. Pearce were in dispute between H. A. Clark and a Mr. Strawbridge. Each party prepared to contest his claim by force. Each having their friends raising companies of twenty or thirty men, and a serious knock down occurred. Firearms were resorted to, shots exchanged, and a number of serious wounds were the result.
For the next few years, the nearest gristmill was at Ottawa. Trips frequently required several days, and a heavy expense to obtain flour for bread. The waterpower at Aurora was put to early use. A dam was constructed and, a gristmill built. In this respect, the establishment of Aurora was considerably ahead of Oswego. However, Messrs. Levi and G. W. Gorton built a gristmill at an early day in Oswego, which was of great benefit to the surrounding country.
The establishment of a market greatly improved the prosperity of the whole northwestern portion of Illinois. Other than slim, unreliable home markets there was no market place for anything. The completion of the Illinois canal opened an outlet for all the surplus produce of what was then the northwest. The produce of the farmer was carried for hundreds of miles by wagon to Chicago. The roads leading there were continually thronged with teams, carrying produce to and from market.
The terrible condition of Illinois roads during a large portion of the year, was a serious obstacle to this mode of conveyance. To correct this difficulty, companies were formed to construct plank roads on the thoroughfares uniting the principal towns. Oswego was the most central of the Fox River villages and enjoyed the easiest access to Chicago and Joliet. Companies were formed; charters were obtained to connect Oswego with these important points by plank roads. The citizens of Oswego subscribed liberally to the stock and the roads were begun with fair prospects of their early completion.
In the meantime the new County of Kendall was formed. After a close contest, Oswego was selected for the county seat. A large stone courthouse, which does the county honor, was erected. With this addition to her business and prospects, Oswego rapidly outstripped all rivals in becoming a place of importance. An impetus was given to all branches of business, not witnessed in other towns. At the time the writer came to Oswego, in 1849, there was more business and bustle than at Aurora. The number of dry good stores was eight, and other establishments in proportion. The population was rapidly increasing, and capital was flowing in. It was emphatically a community of workers. Everyone seemed to have his or her hands and heads full. Its future prospects were flattering indeed. A direct communication by plank road was opened to the greatest commercial city of the west. The "one idea" of the citizens, was plank roads, before which all other projects dwindle into insignificance. That was the greatest hobby on which all was riding. The tenacity, with which that "one idea" was clung to, proved "the rock on which she split." For a time, it shut down the gate of prosperity and prostrated Oswego in the dust. In cart and wagon days, plank roads were of immense utility to towns connected in this way. But progress is the watchword of our time. Progress is a trait of character, which is largely developed in the Yankee race. It is the great secret of improvement. The world moves on. That which was of utmost importance yesterday is thrown away today. Plank roads have had their day. Roads of iron and teams of iron have superceded their necessity. The rapidity with which railroads are being extended, ramifying and interesting the country in every direction proves that a new era has dawned, in the method of communication. Instead of going to market, markets have come to us. Farmers and producers need not go out of sight of the smoke of their own chimneys to find a ready sale for all the products of their lands. We owe this happy change to railroads. As in the great march of progression, those who lag are apt to be trampled upon. So it has been with Oswego. When railroad projects first began to be promoted, Oswego was just one step behind the times. The result has been sadly to her disadvantage.
In 1850, a road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads. Aurora was for many years the terminus of the road, and a central market place for the whole surrounding country. These are facts, which have come under our observation. The leading businessmen of Oswego were at first, generally opposed to the project of railroads. Thus, as the event has proved, cutting their own throats. We knew not in what light to view these "would be philanthropists," certainly not as benefactors. Subsequently they were convinced of the railroad's utility and endeavored by every means even by taxing the county to have one built. The people were not disposed to acquiesce and the project failed. In 1853-4 the Aurora road was extended. Oswego was left a good distance to one side. However, a station was built which is now doing a good business.
We might have extended this hasty sketch, but we have already greatly exceeded the limits we at first assigned them. It is not six months since Oswego was incorporated as a village. Already the streets are assuming more of a town appearance. Business is on the increase. I could write long paragraphs concerning the various branches of business that is pursued here. But I remember the printer's injunction, "be short." Were it not for this, I would like to speak in befitting terms of the present attractive features of Oswego, of its present prospects and its present business. A mere passing glance must suffice. We have four extensive dry goods stores, two hotels, the Kendall House and the National, four grocery stores, four blacksmith shops. We have a hardware and a drug store. There are three harness shops, four shoemaking establishments, and one clothing store. We have three wagon manufacturers, two cooper shops, two tailor shops, and four physicians. Burr and Bradley are opening extensive cabinet rooms. Moore is building a large shop for the manufacture of sash, doors, wagons, etc. When completed it will add much to the business of Oswego. There are three lumberyards running full blast at the railroad station, doing a good business.
Three churches have been completed and another is rapidly being built. These together with a good stone schoolhouse speaks well for Oswego. We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River. The lowering clouds, which have so long hung over her, are sweeping away. Business is again flowing in its legitimate channel. The prospects before us are bright. We are now in direct railroad connection with Chicago. We can shake hands with all the Atlantic and Western cities. We are situated in the center of the richest agricultural regions in the world. There is an unsurpassed natural beauty. We have unrivaled facilities for manufactories of all kinds. One must be dull indeed who cannot predict a glorious future for Oswego. She must thrive! She will eventually shine one of the brightest constellations of Fox River villages. All the circumstances, which surround her, point to such a destiny.
We have but given hasty and brief outline of the picture. We are satisfied time will fill it up with colors more vivid and glorious than the most sanguine now anticipate. Judson is doing much to bring this about. We hope others will do the same, and Oswego will occupy the proud position of the Queen village of the Fox River valley. Then let others more competent than we prepare its record. Signed Plow Boy.
Two weeks later in the September 19, 1855 issue of the Kendall County Courier, some corrections were published.
Some of the old settlers of our town, have reported some errors in the article furnished by "Plow Boy," published in the Courier of the fifth instant. An opinion has been expressed that it would be but just for us to correct them. As we wish to render honors to which they are due, we give the following.
The first settlers on the ground where our beautiful village now stands, were William Smith Wilson, who owned the first tavern, and Philip Mudgett. The first tavern in town is now standing west of Main Street, at the north end, and is known as the "old Towle Stand." Mr. Mudgett is now a resident of Iowa.
When the post office was first located here, the little settlement received the name of Lodi.
The first store of goods was brought in to Oswego circa 1835 by Messrs. Hunt & McLean, and occupied a building which stood in the middle of what is now called Main Street, near the present stand of John M. Bruner. Those gentlemen laid out the town and gave it the name of Hudson. Mr. Hunt is now a resident of Naperville.
The name "Oswego," was given the settlement, a few years after it was laid out, at a meeting of citizens, attended by Lewis B. Judson, Jeremiah Hunt, William S. Wilson, Messrs. McLean, Osborne, and one other whose name we have not heard. Two of them voted "Oswego." Each of the others had a different name; hence the town has since been called Oswego.