Kane County History: Green Tips From Batavia’s History, in Honor of Earth Day

Kane County History: Green Tips From Batavia’s History, in Honor of Earth Day

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Batavia Depot Museum Director Kate Garrett. All photos are courtesy of the Batavia Depot Museum.

Happy Earth Day to Kane County! Since 1970, Kane County residents have celebrated our planet and raised environmental awareness on April 22.

Many of our communities along the Fox River were heavily industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to the abundant water power, convenient rail transportation, and steady supply of labor.

Batavia factories produced fine flour, cigars, munitions, butter, agricultural machinery, refrigerated truck bodies, iron castings, ladies dresses and a great deal more. Water power from the river was supplemented with coal-fired steam power. Batavia’s skyline was crowded with smokestacks.

Smoke pollution was not the only environmental concern for a Batavia resident in the 19th century. The garbage services we rely on today to remove waste from our homes and businesses was nonexistent.

Instead, residents would bury or burn household waste in their yards or pitch things in their outhouses. Industrial byproducts or runoff often were dumped outside the back door of the factory in the hopes that rain would wash it into the river and away from town.

Today’s State Street once was named Buttermilk Street because the creamery at the foot of the street simply dumped their waste into the road. Some byproducts still are lingering in Batavia’s soil, preventing redevelopment of old sites for new purposes.

The environmental movement of the 1970s radically changed how Americans thought about pollution, but our ancestors relied on many “green technologies” for their day-to-day comfort and even survival.

In honor of Earth Day, here’s a top-5 list of Historic Batavia’s Green Tips.

(1) Pedestrian-Friendly Streets

In the 1860s and ‘70s, an influx of Black families settled on River Street, which at the time was located at the far north end of Batavia.

Remote by the standards of the day, this location still provided an easy walk to the city center where grocers, shops selling dry goods, and other retail businesses were well established.

Men walked to work at the Challenge factory, or to unlock their barbershop doors on Wilson Street. Children walked to the East Side School. Families walked to church services on Logan Street at the Rev. Abraham Hall’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Nearly every immigrant family arrived in Batavia without the means to purchase or keep a private horse and carriage. Early Batavia had to be walkable.

(2) Public Transportation

When traveling distances greater than a few miles, Batavians in the 19th century had a variety of public transportation options.

Multiple rail lines laced through town, including passenger lines with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) and the Chicago Northwestern.

In the early 20th century, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin (CA&E) “Great Third Rail” had a spur line running to Batavia. Passengers could pick up the line at the Wilson Street Bridge for rapid transit to Aurora and beyond.

(3) Line Dry

Industry didn’t only take place in Batavia factories, family homes also were workplaces.

Before the electric washing machine relieved the manual labor of agitating and wringing laundry, someone in every household spent the better part of a day washing clothing, sheets, diapers and towels.

It was backbreaking, but honorable, work and relatively cheap to hire out.

(4) Designing Homes for Ventilation

Batavia’s historic housing stock is well designed to function in a world without central air. Large windows not only allow light, they also provide excellent ventilation.

Most windows are double hung, so that both the top can open down and the bottom can open up. Historic housekeeping advice was to open the bottom of the windows at night to allow cool air to enter.

During the day, open the top of the windows instead, to allow warm air to escape. Opening windows on opposite ends of the home creates cross ventilation. A well-cared-for old school window is often more energy efficient than a new modern one.

(5) Eat in Season

Grocers in the 19th century carried limited stocks of fresh produce, dairy and meat products.

Without reliable refrigerated transportation, these items needed to be sourced locally, and that meant they had to be sourced in season. Commercial canned goods supplemented diets and families who could afford to might grow their own produce to put up for the lean months.


Read The Kane County History Series!

Sign Up To KCC E-Newsletter