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Reflections: Hearse fundraising just part of early 1900s fun

In the 1870s, a group of Oswego women spearheaded a successful community fundraising effort to purchase a hearse for the use of newly departed village residents.
In the 1870s, a group of Oswego women spearheaded a successful community fundraising effort to purchase a hearse for the use of newly departed village residents.

“There’s nothing to do around here.”

That complaint has been made by bored folks, young and old alike, probably for as many years as there have been people here.

Of course, we don’t know for sure whether the native peoples who arrived here tens of centuries ago after the retreating glaciers had time to get bored and wished they could be doing exciting things elsewhere. But reading through the news for the past 155 years or so, it seems as if many of the complaints folks make nowadays are much the same as those of a century and a half and more ago.

When suitable recreation does not exist these days, bored young people often take matters into their own hands, and they did the same thing way back then, too, with vandalism often the unfortunate result. For instance, the July 21, 1864, Kendall County Record reported: “Three boys from Oswego crept into one of the school houses in NaAuSay and tore up and destroyed [a large] amount of books. They were arrested [and] lodged in the jail at the Court House, having been bound over before the Circuit Court.”

So much for those carefree and crime-free days of yesteryear.

And how about public disturbances caused by entertainment getting out of hand? It’s not a new thing. Just take a look at this Oswego item from the Feb. 4, 1869, Record: “The dance at Chapman Hall on Friday night was a pleasant affair but there was an afterpiece of a quite contrary nature. It seems Mark Chapman refused to sell a ticket to Bob Jolly. Bob, being highly incensed at not being able to dance and share in the fun, provided himself with a club and waited for Mark outside. As he came out on the sidewalk, he was set upon by Bob and pretty severely beaten. Bob is under arrest.”

It seems like folks back then enjoyed a spirited affair, not to mention reading the news reports about it later – sometimes to a fault. Such a report would not make today’s news written like that, no matter what people who don’t like the press say.

When calmer entertainment was attempted, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

For instance, the Sept. 30, 1869, Record reported: “The Oswego Union Sewing Society’s peach festival of last week was not well attended; the proceeds of it are to go towards buying a hearse. But this generation need not expect the benefits of one unless funds for the same are raised by some other means.”

A peach festival and a hearse might seem like strange bedfellows – especially today when hearses are privately owned by independent funeral homes – but it was not at all strange for a community to own its own hearse in the 19th century.

Tradition meant a lot in 19th-century Kendall County, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. The Fourth of July was an especially patriotic time of year in those post-war years, as this note in the July 4, 1871, Record illustrates: “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The Oswego cannon? What do you suppose happened to that? It certainly would be a neat thing to have around these days, especially during those pesky planning boundary disputes that pop up from time to time.

But back to the business of trying to find some fun around these parts. Remember the drive to buy Oswego a new hearse? Well, in the Aug. 31, 1871, Record, the results were finally reported. Wrote correspondent Lorenzo Rank: “A few more days and death will be no longer be any terror; the new hearse is ready for delivery. The ladies who brought about this achievement of a free hearse through raising of monies in fairs, socials, etc., now wish to finish their labors and enjoy the fruits of it. The greatest harmony and goodwill was maintained during the endeavor and their several years of joint labor and it is now hoped that no jealousy will spring up between them, and that the honor of its first usage may not create any envy among them.”

Now, Rank was not above pulling a leg now and then, but he was mostly a serious reporter of Oswego’s foibles. However, it is hard to believe people would become jealous about who used the new hearse first, especially considering the circumstances of that use. Given human nature and how prickly some folks are even today, though, it’s not hard to believe that such a thing might occur.

At any rate, it was nice to find out that all the hard work in throwing those peach festivals was not in vain.

Kendall County church congregations also held various entertainments, many of them as fundraisers. For instance, the May 30, 1872, Record reported: “A mush and milk festival is arranged for next Thursday evening at Chapman’s Hall for the benefit of the Baptist church.”

The years have obviously been unkind to food favorites, because most people immediately wonder how mush and milk could possibly be festive. About the only way a group could raise money through a mush and milk festival these days would be to promise never, ever to have one. I suspect people might pay for that.

Finally, in the days of horse-drawn carriages, buggies and wagons, there always was some entertainment just waiting to happen. On March 27, 1873, the Record reported: “One day recently as John Tatge was engaged in hauling out manure with the old gray, on throwing down the lines to step back for the fork, the horse got frightened and ran all over town spilling the manure and scattering parts of the wagon along the road.”

Now that’s something you won’t see in this day and age of dump trucks and backhoes. Ah, but for the good old days, and a runaway manure wagon now and then to liven up a dull spring afternoon.

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