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Reflections: Kendall County lightning rod salesmen covered the Midwest

Herman Melville’s short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published in the August 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, recounts the fictional interaction between the story’s narrator and an inventive and ambitious lightning rod salesman. A humorous tale filled with plenty of Melville allegory, it’s interesting for its treatment of a trade long gone from the American scene: the traveling lightning rod salesman.

Lightning rods were big business in the mid-19th century, and by the last third of the century, traveling salesmen were hawking rods all over the settled parts of the country.

And oddly enough, Oswego here in Kendall County seems to have been a regular hotbed of lightning rod manufacturing and sales. A number of firms sent out teams of lightning rod salesmen annually, providing employment for a number of local residents.

The community’s primary lightning rod manufacturer was Henry W. Farley. Farley was a former railroad official who worked as a construction engineer on a number of Eastern rail lines. A native of Massachusetts, after his service in the Civil War in Missouri, Farley moved his family north, settling in Oswego.

In the pre-war period, Farley had patented a number of products, mostly dealing with railroad locomotives. But after moving to Oswego sometime before 1869, he put his mind to inventing an improved lightning rod that would be cheaper than the pure copper rods that were most efficient and more effective than the cheaper iron rods economy-minded building owners often favored.

He came up with an idea using a star-shaped iron rod that was twisted into a spiral shape. The rods were manufactured with screw threads at top and bottom, allowing them to be connected with a threaded collar creating whatever length was desired.

Farley’s innovation was to run copper wires or strips up the spiral grooves to provide a good lightning conductor, while the spiral grooved rod proved much stronger than a similar, soft copper rod. As he noted in his patent application, the star-shaped spiral rod “combines the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and also giving great area of surface.” He patented the idea in 1869.

Lightning rods were first introduced in Kendall County by Oswego storekeeper Garret H. Teller in 1844, according to one county history. Teller continued to sell lightning rods for the rest of his life, eventually taking on a number of partners during the years.

As the 1870s began, lightning rods were pretty big business. According to the business directory in the 1870 atlas and plat book of Kendall County, along with Farley (the only manufacturer listed), Oswegoans Teller, William Hoze, Thomas P. Mullenix were all engaged in selling lightning rods.

Lightning rods were big business because of the constant threat posed by thunderstorms to farm buildings, particularly the large barns of the era. As the June 8, 1871, Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “In the storm of Sunday afternoon the barn of William Ladd was struck by lightning and consumed with pretty much all its contents, including two new wagons, reaper, mower, planter, harnesses and nearly everything required on a farm; also upwards of 300 bushels of grain, a part of which and also one of the wagons belonged to Abe Emmons, who upon his removal in the spring to Amboy left it there in store. Of the other contents a large share belonged to N.T. Ferris, who is working the farm. The entire loss will exceed $3,000.”

As early as 1868, the Record reported from Oswego that several residents had contracted with Farley for his new, improved lightning rods. On April 15 of that year, the Record reported from Oswego that “Farley has commenced active operation in the lightning rod business. Several houses in the town were rodded last week, among which are Snook's, Bunn's, and Wollenweber's.”

But it was pretty clear that all those lightning rod dealers couldn’t make a living selling just to Kendall County residents. So Farley and the other major wholesalers in Oswego began sending teams of salesmen out to hawk their wares to a wide strip of the Midwest.

It was a fortunate time to be recruiting young men for sales jobs because of the number of Civil War veterans looking for decent jobs with a little adventure thrown in.

Generally, the sales teams loaded up their horsedrawn wagons with their goods and headed out to their territories in mid- to late April.

As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on April 14, 1870: “The lightning rod establishments are now very busy in getting up and sending out teams. Oliver [Hebert] has got up some very nice looking wagons for them.”

Hebert was Oswego’s premier carriage and wagon maker during that era, suggesting the firms weren’t stinting on their equipment.

Territories for individual companies extended as far north as Minnesota, as far south as southern Illinois and as far west as Iowa. During the sales year, the crews came home to visit their families on summer and early fall holidays, as the July 6, 1871, Record reported: “A number of the lightning rod boys came home to spend the Fourth.”

And sometimes they just came home for a visit after a couple months on the road. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 13, 1871: “The lightning rod folks who are and have been home on a visit to their families and friends may be mentioned Boss, G.H. Teller; C.L. Murdock, and C.L. Judson.”

And, of course, given that the sales forces were mostly comprised of young Civil War veterans, activities weren’t strictly confined to business. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on Oct. 17, 1872: “Charles E. Hubbard went last spring in the Teller company to Wisconsin lightning rodding; it appears however that he did not wholly confine his attention to that business, for he came home one day last week with a wife.”

The sales season generally wrapped up in September as the season for lightning-producing thunderstorms ended.

The county’s era as a center of the Midwest’s lightning rod business was over by the early 1880s. But while it lasted, it was a business that put Kendall County on the region’s map.

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