Ancient Fires and Lights of Will County
From: History of Will County, Illinois
By: August Maue
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1928

"Ancient Fires and Lights of Will County". - (By William Grinton. Published in the Joliet News, October 5, 1912.) Will county pioneers have lived in parts of the two greatest centuries of history in marvels of human achievement and improvement, and the evolution of illumination from the tallow dip to to the fierce lights of the twentieth century has kept the pace with all the others and yet the little candle power is the unit by which light is scientifically estimated.

Next to the candle came lard oil and whale oil. Sperm oil was considered the last word in illumination until camphene (oil of turpentine distilled over quick lime) took the center of the stage and played the lime light role, but it proved to be so explosive and dangerous that it had to be diluted with three parts alcohol and then bore the name of burning fluid, which made a brilliant and comparatively safe light, and sold for about ninety cents a gallon.

Whale oil, as a natural resource, was of such importance that the conservation of whales became a subject of as keen interest as the conservation of other natural resources is at the present day. One man remembers, in 1850, reading in the New York Evangelist, under the big scare heads, a first page full column article, ringing the alarm bell calling the people to the rescue of the sperm whale, lest, from indiscriminate slaughter it become extinct and the country left in darkness.

A short time before the war, kerosene came into common use for lights and soon drove most of its competitors out of business, where gas could not be had. It was used by Republican wide awakes and Democrat invincibles in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign of 1860. The torches for the Buchanan-Fremont campaign in 1856 were made by wrapping candle wick around the end of a lath and dipping it in tar.

The nights were filled with the music of Grosh's band; men and boys marched bravely and gayly through the streets, sure they were having the political time of their lives; but 0, they were sad, "in the cold gray dawn of the morning after," when they saw their Sunday suits ruined by the dripping tar tears of the torches.

At big political mass meetings and rallies, bon fires furnished the light, and tar barrels the active principle which was supposed to throw light, from Democratic or Republican points of view, respectively, on the dark and tangled problems of African slavery; the Missouri compromise; squatter sovereignty and the obiter dictum decision of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case: that, "A negro was an inferior being; so inferior that he had no rights a white man was bound to respect."

The proverb that "Sometimes a singed cat is better than it looks" was verified in the sandy land township of Reed.

About 1864 William Henneberry, in digging a well for water, struck coal raw material for fire. Braidwood became a boom city, and soon had a five thousand population. This Will county coal brought the original Rolling Mill to Joliet, in '69, and it grew and grew, with its "pillar of fire by night and its cloud of smoke by day," a leader of the iron industries of the country, and Reed, the singed cat township of the county, put on a "Cheshire cat smile" that has not come off.


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