May 27, 2022

Reflections: Not a currier to be found in Kendall County these days

We’ve got a nice collection of downtown Oswego photos in the collections of the Little White School Museum. And looking at those storefronts and other buildings from days long gone, you’d get the idea things haven’t changed all that much.

From the late 1850s on, there were a fairly familiar mix of furniture, lumber, grocery, hardware and general merchandise businesses lined up on both sides of Main Street. It was a similar sight in the other small towns that dotted the Fox River Valley.

But when you really study the topic, you quickly see there definitely were some major differences between then and now.

For instance, in 1870, lightning rods were big business in Oswego. Drive up and down Main Street today, and I defy you to find one lightning rod manufacturer or store.

Not only were there a number of lightning rod salesmen in Oswego in 1870, but Henry H. Farley actually was manufacturing his patented “Combined Star and Copper Wire Paratonnerre,” a popular lightning rod design sold both locally and all over the Midwest.

Oswego’s lightning rod salesmen, working for two or three of the village’s companies, packed up their colorfully painted wagons every spring and headed out to hawk their wares all over the Midwest, coming home only for a holiday or two before returning home in the fall until the next season.

Meanwhile in Plano, Henry Stoffregen was doing business as a merchant tailor, a profession you don’t see much of at all anymore, while John McMurtree in Yorkville was providing the same service. Tailoring once was a fairly common craft in the 19th century, with several such businesses in every town. But as manufactured clothing began to be produced, tailors gradually had to find other lines of work. In 1870, McMurtree was advertising both his tailoring skills as well as his stock of “Ready-Made Clothing.”

Plano, of course, was a manufacturing center in 1870, with Marsh, Steward & Co. manufacturing Marsh Harvesters for sale to farmers all over the region. In fact, at one time or another, just about every small Kendall County town had a small farm equipment manufacturer, usually just one or two men turning out fairly simple horse-drawn equipment. As far as I know, there are no longer any farm equipment manufacturers doing business in Kendall County.

The Fox River was being put to work then, as well, with its flow providing energy for a number of businesses. In Yorkville, there were paper mills, gristmills and sawmills using the river’s waterpower. Another gristmill at the mouth of Blackberry Creek also made use of that stream.

At Oswego, George Parker was using waterpower to grind grain into flour, saw lumber and manufacture furniture out of the black walnut trees that filled many of the isolated groves on the east side of the Fox River. South of Yorkville, the Post brothers were using their waterpower to grind grain, too.

But how about those other long gone businesses? Back in Oswego, Levi Hall was selling insurance at his drug store, a pretty common occupation, but he also was the local telegraph operator, a skill you don’t find much call for these days.

And speaking of occupations not in much demand these days, how about Mr. McQuilsion in Plano, who advertised his skill as a currier. Currier? Back in those days, a currier processed leather into a uniform thickness and dyed it, too, to be turned into shoes, boots, belts, and horse and mule harnesses.

These days, if you need a ride somewhere, you call Lyft or Uber. Back then, you went down to the livery stable and rented a riding horse or a horse and buggy. Every town had at least one livery stable, and many had more than one.

Before 1870, if you wanted to take a train, you’d hop the hack (horse-drawn cab) from downtown Yorkville to what was then Bristol Station (now the village of Bristol) or from downtown Oswego to Oswego Station (where Light Road crosses the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe tracks).

All those horses on farms and in town required services that are still available in but a few places these days. But back then, the countryside and every townscape was dotted with them. Feed mills that coarsely ground grain to feed horses, cows, chickens and blacksmith shops where the smithy’s hammer on the anvil rang day in and day out were common sights in every town and crossroads hamlet. Not every blacksmith also did farrier work (shoeing horses, mules and oxen), however. Some were the area’s earliest mechanics fixing farm equipment, mending and manufacturing tools, and doing other tasks that required manipulating steel and iron.

These days, we head over to the auto dealership to buy a new car. Back then, you went to the local wagonwright and carriage maker. In Oswego, French Canadian Oliver Hebert manufactured high-quality carriages and road carts, while John Young not only made wagons but also did blacksmithing and farrier work. In Yorkville, you could visit “A. Boutwell, Wagon and Carriage Maker” for your vehicle needs, all in one handy location. James B. Welsh in Lisbon offered to build carriages, buggies and wagons for his customers.

Before 1880, county residents could buy just about everything they needed to create a comfortable life in town or out on one of the area’s farms that was made within a few miles of their homes. But gradually, the nation’s supply chain changed dramatically. Where once local residents such as Henry Helle in Oswego made shoes for local folks and merchant tailors such as Yorkville’s McMurtree were sewing the community’s clothing, stores began stocking shoes and clothing made in huge factories that could be thousands of miles away. Through the seeming miracle of mass production and efficient rail transportation, the products of mills in Massachusetts became cheaper than similar goods made in a Kendall County town.

We may have reached an unfortunate conclusion of that process, however, with all the shortages of goods created by transportation and manufacturing disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But even with our modern supply chain disruptions, it’s unlikely a currier will open shop in downtown Plano anytime soon.

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