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Friday, March 26, 2010

The Silver Trade

Trade between Europeans and Great Lakes Native Americans began in 1634 when French trader, Jean Nicolet (1598-1642), arrived in the area of present-day Greenbay, Wisconsin.

The arrival of the French explorer was depicted by Edwin Willard Deming in his 1904 painting "The Landfall of Jean Nicolet" commissioned by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Nicolet was a prominent French explorer who, for many years, lived among the Indigenous peoples of Quebec. In 1634, Samuel de Champlain, the Governor of New France, sent Nicolet west on a journey to explore the great interior. There was an expectation that he would reach Asia by this route, and Nicolet fully expected to encounter Asian peoples. With this in mind, he donned a Chinese damask robe to greet them but met, instead, a small group of Menomonee Indians.

This encounter marked the beginning of trade between the French and native peoples in this region. The silver and fur trade prospered from 1680 to 1820. In exchange for fur, Native Americans were given goods such as silver armbands, rifles, gunpowder, and wool blankets.

Silver was popular with Native Americans who felt it was a gift from the underworld and its radiant quality reflected the power of the upper world. They believed that there were key points on the body at which evil spirits could enter (fingertips, nose, heart, etc), but wearing silver prevented this. The trade items were designed with this belief in mind, and took such forms as nose rings, wristbands, finger rings, hair ornaments and gorgets.

In this painting from 1776, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea)(1743 – 1807) wears silver, not simply as decoration but to dispel evil spirits. Brant was a Mohawk born somewhere along the Cuyahoga River, and became a military and political leader allied with Great Britian. Portrait of Mohawk, Joseph Brant, from National Heritage Museum.

Since native peoples already created and appreciated finely crafted items made of stone, wood, leather, quill and beads, they would not accept inferior silver products from traders. One of the most popular trade items were silver crosses, in particular double crosses (Cross of Lorraine). For Native Americans, the shape of the double crosses was much like a dragonfly, and typically not seen as a Christian symbol.

In 1889, excavation work near Waukegan's Sugar Refinery uncovered silver objects and human remains. It is unknown if the human remains were of Native or European origins. 

Waukegan (previously known as Little Fort) may have been established as a French trading post as early as 1695. The region was part of the vast silver trade network, which by 1768 was dominated by the Potawatomi.

Some people thought the items recovered in 1889 were a hoax, and the items disappeared from public view. In 1917, several items resurfaced in the possession of C.T. Heydecker.

Edward DeWolf's handwritten note from 1917, regarding the silver crosses and remains in the possession of C.T. Heydecker. DeWolf Collection, Dunn Museum.

DeWolf's note reads: "The above silver crosses, Nos 1 & 2; the Brooch No 7, the square & comp--- No 8, also the skulls and thigh bones, were found in the sand dunes near the site of the Sugar Refy probably in the R-of-W of the E.J & E Ry in 1889. See drawings on another page in which the numbers correspond with those shown above. The above photograph was taken on July 24th 1917. (E.P.DeW)."

Detail of Edward DeWolf's 1917 photograph of the silver crosses and brooch found in Waukegan. 
DeWolf Collection, Dunn Museum. 

The silver crosses bore the markings of "RC" and "CA." At the time, locals thought the initials were those of Jesuit missionaries. Contemporary research leans towards identifying the mark "RC" for professional silversmith, Robert Cruickshank (c. 1748-1809) of Montreal Canada. "CA" may be the mark of Charles Arnoldi also of Montreal, and possibly Cruickshank's partner. Apprentices were also allowed to make items and use their master's mark.

Two of the crosses again turned up in 1960 in private hands, and were brought to the attention of Robert Vogel, Director of the Lake County Museum of History. Vogel was asked to authenticate the crosses and enlisted the help of Fansteel Metalurgical Corp. in North Chicago. One cross had 5-10% copper, and the remainder silver; the other cross had 10-20% copper, a little gold, and silver. 

Vogel was the first to dispel the notion that the crosses were those of a Jesuit missionary, and asserted they were trade items.

The trail of the crosses runs cold after Vogel's research. The silver crosses may still be nestled in the homes of Lake County citizens, who may or may not realize their significance. It is hoped, though it is difficult to confirm, that many of the items discovered in 1889 made their way to one or more museums in Chicago.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vidvard Point, Grass Lake

One of the most colorful residents of Lake County's past was Colonel John P. Vidvard (1852-1918) of Grass Lake. 

Now Vidvard's story can be more fully told thanks to a significant donation of photographs, postcards, and related ephemera made to the museum by his descendants earlier this year. Vidvard was born in Utica, New York and came to Chicago in 1884. 

From 1899 to 1913, he was one of the owners of the Sans Souci amusement park in Chicago. This was one of the city's first amusement parks and was located on the western side of Cottage Grove Avenue, just across 60th Street from the southern end of Washington Park. The park's main entrance resembled the exterior of a German beer hall. The park featured large shade trees, a Japanese tea garden, ornamental shrubbery, electric fountains, nighttime lighting, and a casino. Like many Chicagoans, Vidvard sought the fresh air and open space of country life and became captivated by the Chain o’ Lakes region north of the city. About 1897, he bought property on Grass Lake and built a home which he named, Lotus Cottage at Vidvard Point. As you might expect from a wealthy man who had operated an amusement park, Vidvard liked to entertain. He invited his large circle of friends to his home for monstrous clambakes where he expounded on the beauty and significance of the lotus, and where he sometimes hosted Native American ceremonies. His invitations stated, “The fire starts at 4 a.m., and I wish my friends could be here in time to see me cover the red-hot bowlers and watch the lid come off the steamed seafood.” Clam bake, August 28, 1897. Colonel Vidvard is standing behind his wife and cooks. Note the clam pit mound at left - LCDM 2010.8 The bakes included: 125 spring chickens, 135 lobsters, 2,000 clams, 100 pounds of bluefish, 18 dozen ears of sweet corn, two barrels of seaweed and 40 gallons of chowder. When Vidvard wasn't entertaining guests, he went to his favorite clubhouse on Grass Lake, the Lotus Inn, which was only 350 feet down the beach from his home. The inn also carried the name of something very dear to Vidvard, the lotus. Vidvard used his 200-acre home to entertain hundreds of friends, and subsequently educated them on the importance of conserving the lotus and their habitat.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Waukegan Power Plant

The Waukegan Power Plant is located a mile north of Waukegan on the Lake Michigan lakeshore. It is a coal burning electric generating facility operated by the Integrys Energy Group.

EJ&E Railroad engine 703 (above) leads a UP coal train to the Waukegan Power Plant.
Photo by Jeff Easton in 2007 and posted on

Until recently, fishermen were allowed to use the pier near the plant. The power plant uses water from Lake Michigan to cool the steam used in the generating process. The water is returned to the lake via a discharge channel, and is warmer than the lake water, which in turn attracts fish. There are now "no fishing" signs posted.

The county's first electric generating coal plant was the Waukegan Electric Light Company. It was founded by Michael Hussey about 1905. Hussey was known as the coal baron of northern Illinois in those early years of the 20th century.

North Shore Electric Company linemen, 1906 (above). At this time, electric service was available only to people in towns, and generally from dusk to dawn. Front row: Bob Jenkinson, Charlie Kreuser, John Riddle (Zion), George Hecksweiler, C. Voss; Back row: Mr. Brooks (Zion), George Jenkinson (Waukegan), Dennis Murphy (Waukegan)

In 1923, Hussey’s company was bought out by Samuel Insull’s Public Service Company of Northern Illinois.

In the early 1910s, Insull set about revolutionizing the availability of electric service. Lake County was his home base and where he set his plans in motion by buying out small, independent power plants. He ran transmission lines and centralized the service, and was able to provide 24-hour electric service to thousands of homes and farms. 
Samuel Insull (1859-1938), founder of Commonwealth Edison. 
His former home is the Cuneo Museum in Vernon Hills, IL.

The Public Service Company of Northern Illinois became Commonwealth Edison, and then Exelon. Several years ago Exelon sold the Waukegan power plant to the Integrys Energy Group.

Power Plant workers, circa 1935. Dunn Museum, 2007.12

In 2007, the museum received a donation of nearly 60 photographs of the Waukegan Power Plant from a private donor. The photos are of plant employees in their daily tasks, posing candidly for the camera, and date from the 1930s to 1970s. 

W. McCoy at a power plant control panel, circa 1970.  Dunn Museum, 2007.12

The images are remarkable because they document the power plant's workforce. Most candid photographs tend to be taken of people on vacation or at special events and gatherings. It is far less common for people to take photographs at work, making this collection all the more fascinating.

Herman Genkinger and Richard "Red" Mathews, 1950. Dunn Museum, 2007.12

Safety award, 1960. Left to right: Vern Stone, Joe Shrank, Murray Joslyn, L. Stang, A. Johnson, George Kreu, P. Root, Bob Lundberg, H. Otto, and K. Leisner. Dunn Museum 2007.12.