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Program shows Oswego family's trips down the Fox River 100 years apart

Dwight Young never spoke of his 1912 wooden rowboat adventure down the Fox River, not even when his son Richard Young came to him before he entered the military and suggested a trip along the same route.

“Cool, I’ve never done that before,” Scott Johnson said his great-grandfather Dwight Young said when asked about the boat trip by his grandfather Richard Young.

After his death in 1975, Dwight’s family found envelopes of film with writing on them, such as “cove under trees,” “pillar (good),” “pillar and cliff,” and “The Elms” to name a few titles of the 52 photographs taken on the three-day trip on the Fox River from Oswego to Ottawa with friend John Condon. Along with the descriptive names of most of the pictures were dates and time stamps.

On April 27, at the Oswego Public Library, Johnson presented “100 Years along the Fox River,” a program full of the history of his family and the pictures of the excursion Dwight took in 1912 and a trip recreated by the family 100 years later. He started at the beginning of the discovery.

“He [Dwight] took some great notes, but they weren’t perfect notes, and there were a lot of holes and gaps to the story that has taken us seven years since we took our trip to kind of fill in the gaps. And, there are still gaps to be filled in, I didn’t realized how much fun that was going to be, for me personally, as I put this together,” Johnson said.

Johnson said his great-grandfather had a myriad of jobs, but in the early years his passion for photography developed and he ended up being a local pioneer in the photography arena. He said a book was published on towns in Illinois and many of the photos of the Oswego area were Dwight’s.

After the discovery of the negatives, Dwight’s grandson Glenn Young kept the photos in perfect order and helped to ensure their safety, while another grandson Tim Young looked and wanted to recreate this adventure his grandfather took at the age of 19.

“He was the person who wanted to push forward,” Johnson said of his uncle Tim. In 2011, Tim planned the trip and invited Johnson, his father, Keith Johnson, and Tim’s son Greg Young. The Johnson canoe took the camera, while the Young canoe had the video camera.

The four men took off on a two-day trip in June 2012, Dwight’s was three days as he spent a day off of the water in Ottawa and Starved Rock, but as far as time and locations, the group wanted to keep the trip authentic to their ancestor.

“I had no major expectations, it was fun and relaxing, but it was a full two days of paddling,” Johnson said. “My uncle had the big prints in his canoe and I took the pictures, it was about 10 to 20 minutes between shots. We knew what times to hit milestones. We missed a ton of stuff, we did a one-way trip and did not stop, so we knew we would be a little off pace. There are still holes we hope to fill in the future.”

Johnson said they believe Dwight stopped and took multiple photos in one area, and perhaps doubled back, but they chose to go ahead so they did not get off pace.

The group looked at the photos and the time and took photos, 159 in all, in the hope of capturing the exact picture or location as Dwight. He said a lot had changed in 100 years, such as plant life and erosion of soil and sandstone bluffs along the river, but they successfully matched 33 of the 52 photos taken by Dwight.

Johnson said they had a few funny moments on the trip. At one point, Tim had the big print and the group looked for a place called stillwater, as that was the name given to the photo by Dwight.

“We were looking and I said, ‘We are not going anywhere, the water is so still,’” Johnson said when they found the exact stillwater spot his great-grandfather had discovered.

On Day 2, the group went through the sandstone bluffs and Johnson said some of the areas they were hoping to find were more than likely eroded. After he returned and looked at photos he took, he compared markers in the sandstone bluffs to identify and was encouraged when many of the places matched.

Toward the end of the second day, the group noticed that the time stamps stopped and the quality of the negatives was less. They knew the film was damaged somehow, and the mystery was solved when they reached the photo titled, “rapids where we got wet.”

Two other mysteries revolved around a man in some of Dwight’s photos with the first name John, but no last name, and the group questioned how John and Dwight made it home, because they wouldn’t have taken the boat upstream and there was a photo of a bridge and train with conductor.

After a newspaper search, an excerpt was found that killed two birds with one stone. The passage read, “John Condon and Dwight Young returned Monday evening from a river trip, going as far as Ottawa by boat, visiting Starved Rock, and returning by rail.”

The program was sponsored by the Conservation Foundation and the Oswegoland Heritage Association. John Church, Conservation Foundation program director said, “Once we became aware, it sounded like something nice for the community to be aware of and the Conservation Foundation has a focus on land and water.”

Johnson said he hopes the group can go do it again in 2022, 110 years after the original trip, and will keep all of the findings safe for the next generations so they can canoe down the Fox River 200 years later in 2112, just like Dwight and John.

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