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Reflections: Finding a good story’s actually true makes for historical fun

Every once in a while, myth turns into truth, and when it does, it makes history dabblers like me happy.

I must admit that, on the local level, the historical myths that predominate will likely never be proven. We were told, beginning when we were kids, that it’s a well-known fact that some famous or infamous person did this or that thing right here in our own hometown or neighborhood. And sometimes it really happened, which is great, but most often it didn’t – although there’s almost always a grain of truth in every story about the past of our home regions we hear.

For someone like me, who enjoys telling a good story, it’s always a little off-putting when the story is good, but might not be true. That means using a lot of indefinite words and phrases to make sure readers know that the story might be good, but it might also be untrue. And when one of those good stories is proven true, it’s especially satisfying.

For instance, the story I heard as a youngster that the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad really wanted to cross the Fox River at my hometown of Oswego, but didn’t do it because the silly residents here thought railroad technology was just a flash in the pan. Instead, they held out for the road proposed by the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company that was to extend from Oswego east all the way to Indiana.

Well, there really was such a plan for a plank road, which really did fall through, with only a couple miles built linking Joliet and Plainfield. But did the railroad really think Oswego was the spot to cross the Fox River and not Aurora? I couldn’t find much, if any, proof of that. Until one day when I was researching stagecoach routes, and came across Ensign, Bridgman & Company’s “Rail Road and County Map of Illinois” published at New York in 1854.

The map showed the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad tracks heading west of Chicago to Junction – today’s West Chicago – where the line split, one running northwest to Galena and the other, the Aurora Branch Line, curving south. But instead of the Aurora Branch Line crossing the river at Aurora, the map showed it passing through Aurora, running down the east bank of the Fox River to Oswego – where it crossed and ran west.

Obviously, the information for the map had to have been collected earlier than its publication date, suggesting that when the mapmakers interviewed Aurora Branch Line officials the plans were still in effect to cross the river at Oswego. By 1852 the railroad was itching to cross the river and get its rails headed west, but Oswego officials demurred, so when construction began in 1853, the line crossed at Aurora and ran southwesterly across the prairie to Mendota. Marcus Steward told railroad officials if they ran the line through his land, he’d build a town. They agreed, and he laid out Plano on Feb. 28, 1853. The rails reached the new town that August. Thanks to Oswego’s stubbornness, the rail line missed the village by two miles to the west.

And then there’s the great story of town-building chicanery in the early 1800s that resulted in Montgomery not only losing its stagecoach link but its post office to Aurora. In that era, a post office was vital to growth, allowing residents to keep in touch with the rest of the country.

The way the story’s been told over the decades is this: The original southern road to the Galena’s lead mining region extended from Chicago to Naperville and then west to Montgomery where it crossed on the Fox River ford before heading westerly across the prairie to Dixon and then Galena.

But Samuel and Joseph McCarty were vigorously promoting their own new town that eventually became Aurora, and realized a stagecoach connection bringing passengers and mail was vital. So they organized a crew to improve the road to Naperville through the timbered wetlands comprising the Big Woods, building bridges and leveling the route into a decent road. They also told officials of the Frink, Walker & Company stagecoach line that carried the mail and passengers that they’d provide free room and board for the stage drivers as well as the teams pulling the coaches.

The problem was, the story went, a post office had already been awarded to Montgomery. So the McCartys somehow managed to intercept the official postmaster’s key before it was delivered to Montgomery. In that day, the mail was defined as whatever was in the official portmanteau – a large canvas bag secured with a special lock. By law and regulation, a person couldn’t be a postmaster without the key, which Aurora took.

It was a great story, but couldn’t be verified until the National Archives digitized the records of postmaster appointments. Debbie Buchanan, who rides herd on Montgomery history, decided to search the database almost as soon as it was posted, and she struck local history gold.

Turns out, Elijah Pearce (a brother of the Pearce founders of Oswego), who maintained a stagecoach inn at the Montgomery ford, was appointed postmaster of a post office named Wyponsie – probably after famed Chief Waubonsee – on Aug. 25, 1834, which would have made it one of the oldest post offices in northern Illinois. But then those scalawags up in Aurora apparently managed to get Pearce’s key, which they kept. With no key, the Wyponsie Post Office was discontinued Nov. 16, 1835. The Aurora Post Office was officially established March 2, 1837. Montgomery wouldn’t get its own post office until 1844, meaning Aurora stole a decade-long march on growth.

In 1908 when an Aurora history was written, longtime residents were asked what they felt were the most important happenings in the community’s history. Second on the old settlers’ list was “The getting of the post office from Montgomery.”

Great stories make history fun. And it’s even more fun when they turn out to be true.

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