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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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Imagine steamboats on the Kishwaukee

By Barry Schrader.................................March 8, 2011

Living along the Kishwaukee River for 10 years while growing up, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to be Tom Sawyer floating down the Mighty Mississippi while in my old rowboat.
Those memories came flooding back recently when I spotted a news item from 100 years ago in The MidWeek’s Looking Back column, a popular weekly feature in the Daily Chronicle’s sister paper.
Dated Feb. 15, 1911, the report taken from the Daily Chronicle stated: “The wild and woolly Kishwaukee River has been on the rampage for the past couple of days and last night was completely out of bounds. As navigation had not yet opened on the stream, there was no damage to the steamboats which ply its turgid

This drawing of Combs Mill on the Kishwaukee River near Brickville Road north of Sycamore appeared on an early 20th Century postcard sold locally.

waters, and the damage was confined to the cellars of the city.”
My mind filled with visions of a paddle wheeler like the Delta Queen chugging along all the way to the Rock River, where it could eventually hook up with the Mississippi. But then reality set in and I called the foremost local expert on the Kishwaukee, Al Roloff, who is natural resources manager for the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District. Back in 2009 he gave me a tour of the two south branches of the Kish and explained its origin and why it flows north, contrary to the popular belief that all rivers flow south.
He was almost positive there could not have been steamboats on this waterway. He said the state of Illinois defines this little river as “not navigable” for commercial traffic and not even passable with a propeller-driven motor except during flood stage. So the 1911 account must have been a joke or a stretch of the writer’s imagination.
However, Al shared some history that I found fascinating. At one time prior to 1900 there were as many as eight mills operating along the river between DeKalb and Fairdale. These were either sawmills or grist and flour mills, powered by waterwheels or small turbines. They were named after the builders or owners, such as Jenks, Combs, Miller, Gleason, Gault, Lee, Lacey, Hicks and Thompson.
He had done some research on the Combs Mill, which was the most prominent among them, located not far from Brickville Road north of Sycamore. It was built on the west bank, half set on piles over the water on property now owned by Wilbur and Mary Kocher. Al produced an article from the Sept. 4, 1880, Sycamore True Republican telling about the “Annual Farmers Picnic” held near the mill that drew hundreds of people.
In part it reported: “A large boat drawn by a horse upon its bank was running briskly up and down the stream. It can be run for a mile and a half, and (John) Fisher, the jolly miller is intending to build a large boat and fit it up with a dancing platform so that parties can have a boat ride of three miles by moonlight and dance on board. When Fisher clears out the underbrush, erects permanent seats and tables … Comb’s Mill will be a place of still more generous resort.” But the mill was dismantled a few years later so the plans never materialized.
This mill was built in the mid-1840s by William Miller, the same pioneer who built the log cabin now being reconstructed on Pleasant Hill Road near Russell Woods Forest Preserve. He also constructed a second mill near the forest preserve. When the Combs Mill was torn down, one of the round grinding stones was reportedly moved to the old high school grounds, but no evidence of it exists today.
Now here’s a far-fetched idea to bring river traffic back to the county and create a tourist attraction. The DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau could acquire a couple amphibious ducks like those used at the Wisconsin Dells, store them at the NIU lagoon, and offer rides on the Kish from DeKalb to Genoa and back. I would be first in line to take that nostalgic journey.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115