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Civil War, WWII had profound impact on Kendall County

As we observe this year’s Veterans Day, it’s a good time to revisit the major impacts two of the nation’s wars had on Kendall County.

Few historical events had such long-lasting consequences on the history of Kendall County and its people than the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, and World War II, from 1941 to 1945.

By 1860, Kendall County had experienced strong growth, reaching a population of 13,074, up 69% from its 1850 population of 7,730. By 1860, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line had been running through the northern part of the county for only seven years, but already had resulted in the creation of a fast-growing town, Plano, in Little Rock Township. Plano, in fact, was quickly becoming an industrial center, as the Hollister brothers and others tinkered with machines such as grain harvesters with a view toward manufacturing them.

A year later, the Civil War broke out, and men and boys from all over Kendall County rushed to join the Union Army to fight against the South’s treason in defense of slavery. By the end of the war, 1,251 county residents, nearly 10% of the county’s total population, had served in the fight, first to preserve the Union, then to eliminate slavery. Of those who served, 247 – 20% – died. Of the one in five men and boys who marched off to war and who never came home, 70 were killed in action, seven died as Confederate prisoners of war and the rest succumbed to disease and wounds.

The war ended up having a profound effect on those who served, the communities they came from and the county as a whole. The overwhelmingly young group of men – some as young as 13 – who marched bravely off to war were changed in ways they never expected. Some, who had been given great responsibilities leading large numbers of men as commissioned and noncommissioned officers found it difficult to return to menial jobs and to the back-breaking work farming was in 1865. After spending up to four years of continuous travel, sometimes punctuated by vicious combat, many found their horizons had shifted. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered an outlet for those restless souls as did new opportunities available in the Reconstruction South.

The result was a sharp decline in county population. By 1870, the county’s population had dropped to 12,399, and it continued to decline steadily thereafter as whole families packed up and headed west.

The completion of the Fox River Branch of the CB&Q, linking the railroad’s mainline with Oswego, Yorkville, Millington and Ottawa, offered not only a way for people to get to Kendall County towns, but also a way for families to leave, drawn by cheap land in the west and the restlessness of so many former soldiers. By 1890, the county’s population had decreased to 12,106 and continued to drop until it hit its low point of 10,074 in 1920. Not until 1930 did the number finally begin inching up.

And that was just in time for the major impact that World War II had on Kendall County. By 1940, the county’s population had risen to 11,105. Farming, the county’s main industry, was beginning to recover from its long depression that began as World War I ended. Meanwhile, county retail and other businesses were slowly digging their way out of the Great Depression that began in 1929. With the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941, Kendall’s young men (and this time young women) again flocked to the colors, enlisting and being drafted to serve in the military. In addition, thousands of Kendall County women joined the homefront workforce to labor in munitions and other manufacturing plants, take over the businesses their husbands had been running until they were drafted and volunteer in local Red Cross and other support roles.

The war was easily the greatest government program in the nation’s history, removing millions of men and women in prime working ages from the private workforce, resulting in increased wages for those remaining, providing new markets for farm products and generally ending the financial pain of the Great Depression.

At the end of the war, all those young people came home to a country that was drastically changing as new, expanding businesses tried to keep pace with the demand for goods and services. Millions of young men and women married after the war, finding jobs in the factories springing up to supply goods for the pent-up demand created by the Great Depression and four years of war and rationing. All those new families needed places to live, cars to drive, furniture and appliances for their new homes, and schools for their children to attend.

Kendall County, located on the periphery of the Chicago metro region, began to grow as the war decade of the 1940s turned into the decade of growth in the 1950s. U.S. highways Route 30, Route 34, and Route 52 provided interstate and interregional routes into the county as did state highways Routes 25, 71, 47 and 126. Decent transportation, land available for development and nearby jobs began drawing thousands of residents to new housing developments epitomized by Don L. Dise’s sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision in northern Oswego Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the county’s population doubled. It took another 30 years to double again, reaching 54,550 by 2000, but only 10 years to more than double again to 114,736 in 2010.

The negative impact of the Civil War on Kendall County is long past, but World War II’s impact continues. Aspects of that growth are seen as both negative and positive, sometimes both at the same time, by longtime and new residents alike. But although the effects of the two wars can be debated, it seems pretty clear they both had profound consequences that, in so many ways, are still being felt today.

And as we ponder those consequences on Veterans Day, you’re invited to the annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, honoring those who’ve served, from the Civil War to the present. Admission is free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

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