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Columns

Reflections: How-to books helped pioneers tame the Illinois prairie

"The Farmers and Emigrants Complete Guide" was published in 1857, four years before the start of the Civil War.
"The Farmers and Emigrants Complete Guide" was published in 1857, four years before the start of the Civil War.

When an American wants to know how to take better photographs, how to repair a lawn mower or how to crochet a better afghan, one of the first things many of us – even in this digital age – still do is to either head to the library or visit one of the few remaining book stores to pick up a how-to book.

The how-to book industry still is pretty robust, even in this day and age of instant YouTube videos. From auto repair books to that great “Idiot’s Guide to – “ series, there are fortunately still a bunch of them on the market. The things have been a part of our American culture for generations. In fact, in his last regular series, “The Bob Newhart Show,” Newhart’s character not only owned and managed a bed-and-breakfast inn in New England, he also wrote how-to books.

Time-Life Corporation made millions selling books on how to repair just about anything in your home to how to take artistic photos.

And this reliance on reading up on a subject to find the best way to do it simply isn’t modern, either. My mother, who learned gardening at the side of her mother, used to chuckle about an Englishwoman who married a local farm neighborhood resident many years ago. A London-bred lady, the Britisher learned how to garden after her marriage by reading books. The farmers in Wheatland Township and eastern Oswego Township all thought she was a bit eccentric as she sat on the ground, book in hand, planting according to the written instructions.

Guidebooks traditionally, have not been confined to teaching crafts or skills, either. In the early years of the 19th century, when settlement was just beginning on the prairies of Illinois, a number of publishers produced guidebooks on how best to pioneer the western wilderness that was then Illinois.

Many area residents have wondered why so many Scots and English moved to Illinois in the 1850s. One reason may have been “The Emigrant’s Almanack,” sold throughout Great Britain in 1849 and 1850, during the era when so many of them decided to immigrate. The book fairly rang with praises of Illinois: “The soil is so rich in Illinois that, though indifferently farmed, it will produce anything in the shape of vegetation in great abundance.” In other words, if a farmer planted seeds all he had to do was get out of the way to avoid being knocked over by plants surging out of the ground.

In addition, the Almanack also contended, mostly truthfully, that a number of vital trades were in short supply on the prairie. “Carpenters, wheelwrights, millwrights, blacksmiths, and tanners are in request. School masters and mistresses would here in Illinois meet with immediate and full employment, and liberal remuneration of their services. It is however the worst country in the world for clerks and shopmen,” the book reported.

According to the publication, an emigrant might purchase an Illinois farm, plus all the equipment needed to operate it, for 191 pounds Sterling. Included were 160 acres of prairieland at $1.25 an acre, 40 acres of timber, hiring a plowman to break the prairie sod for the first time, rail fencing, a log cabin, outbuildings, a well and pump with buckets, and “other fittings.”

Later, railroad companies, busy selling huge amounts of land located along their rights-of-way, published a number of guidebooks aimed at those looking for a fresh start in the west.

Probably the premiere mid-19th-century guidebook was titled “The Farmers and Emigrants Complete Guide or a Hand Book With Copious Hints, Recipes, and Tables, Designed for the Farmer and Emigrant,” compiled by Josiah T. Marshall and first published in 1845 by D. Appleton and company in New York. Printed in both German and English editions, it included information on just about anything a budding pioneer might wonder about and it went through numerous editions.

Marshall went into the greatest detail in his book about the purchase of land and the equipment a farmer would need to work it.

Here’s a brief list of what Marshall felt a pioneer needed to be a successful settler: one span of horses; a yoke of oxen; a double wagon; a plow; a drag; one spade, shovel and hoe; two log chains; a cradle, scythe and snath (to harvest grain); an ax; two augers, one half-inch and one, 1-inch; a saw; two chisels; a rake and pitchfork; a hammer and 10 lbs. of nails; and a cow. All that could be had for a total of $254.50, Marshall claimed.

In addition to traveling to Illinois, purchasing land, and buying tools, Marshall cautioned prospective pioneers to allow 20 days’ work to cut and hew timber, raise a log cabin and build a chimney and a fireplace. In addition, $20.62 had to be allowed to pay for 10 days’ hired labor to help build a cabin and buying 1,000 board-feet of sawed lumber, 20 pounds of nails, six windows, and enough shingles for the roof. Marshall also advised settlers to reserve $25 for construction contingencies.

Settlers should set off in June, Marshall advised, and should take the following supplies from their homes in the East: beds and bedding, a filled bookcase, copies of “Towne’s Spelling Book” and “Webster‘s Dictionary,” a slate for each child and, last but not least, 2-year subscriptions for at least two agricultural and miscellaneous newspapers. It’s interesting that Marshall takes for granted that not only were pioneers literate, but that wherever his readers chose to settle on the American frontier of that era, the government was expected to provide postal service.

In the pre-electronic media era, guidebooks were of inestimable help to our pioneer ancestors. As historian James P. Savage Jr. once noted in “The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society”: “That these books and pamphlets existed shows that someone recognized a need for them. The fact that many went through several editions leads to the conclusion that they were put to substantial use. Certainly the very least that can be attributed to them is that they kept before the eyes of the American public the promise of the unsettled West.”

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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