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June 24, 2009 / howardmestas

FAREWELL WINDY CITY

CHICAGO RIVER AT NIGHT

CHICAGO RIVER AT NIGHT

What an extraordinary 10 day journey through the Civil War, Gilded Age, and the birthplace of the eight hour work day! I feel gratified I was able to fulfill the obligations of this trip and honored to have been part of such a dedicated group willing to give up their free time away from their families. The students of these teachers will never know how lucky they are. Of course special thanks to Professors Harris and Rees for their foresight in the dynamics of our mission, and for guiding us in the most beneficial ways. And kudos to Scott Whited for being the model of efficiency, and one who always manages to find the most awesome bus drivers.
Starting with the readings, everything about this class has made me a better teacher. Like so many others, I have often thrown around the words “Progressive Era” without really knowing what I was talking about; but as I look back through our educational adventure, I now feel enlightened. The history of the Midwest is generally an area neglected in favor of areas east of the Appalachians and places around the Mason-Dixon Line. But who would have thought the victory for the North in the Civil War was fueled in part through the blood of the Chicago Stockyards? And how many educators really know that the roots of the Progressive Movement started in Wisconsin?
Our first days in Springfield were awe inspiring, especially since we ended last’s year’s journey in Gettysburg. The more I learn about Abraham Lincoln, the more I appreciate the mystery of his life and what he meant to this country. The Lincoln Museum should be a destiny for anyone who wants to know what the history of this nation is all about. Visiting New Salem was a pilgrimage to his greatness and a place where I felt I was living the prologue of his incredible American odyssey. It was remarkable that this year’s journey ended at the Pullman Factory where Lincoln’s funeral car was created, and his last living family member (Robert Todd Lincoln) served as company president. Amazing!
When reviewing the blog pages it’s fascinating to think we were at all those places. How many dedicated people, with such passion for American History did we encounter? There were so many speakers, curators, and professors…all experts in topics we were eager to learn more about. I would like to say I had a favorite moment, or person, but that would be insincere. All were unique and special.
Sometimes unplanned things happen for all the right reasons. It happened for me on the night before we went to Wisconsin. Since it was rainy all day, and cloudy and gloomy that night, the streets were pretty empty and quiet. What a great time to do something fun without crowds and distractions, and for me that something would be visiting Sear’s Tower. And because I like to do things at my own snail’s pace, I would be making the adventure on my own. In a giant boost of confidence I was able to navigate the subway system by myself and within 10 minutes I was exiting the “L” just beneath the towers.
However, nothing worth experiencing ever happens without some sacrifice, in this case it would be my time. The tower was closed because, even though it had stopped raining, the clouds were still hanging out above the 90th floor well below the observation deck. I would have to wait. As the twilight closed in on the city, the sky began to clear. By this time, only one diehard couple was still around to join me on the trip to the top. It was well worth the wait, we had the city skyline to ourselves for two hours! My guide was a man named Lonnie, who was an expert on Chicago, and eager to share any story.
From my perch I was able to see Lake Michigan, where only days before I had waded along its shoreline. I could see where two branches of the Chicago River joined, and the location of what was Fort Dearborn, destroyed by Potawatomi Indians in 1812. With Lonnie’s help, I could see where the Great Fire of 1871 started and the horrific path it followed. It was a new perspective on the fire, much different than following its devastation on a map. I saw the location of the Union Stockyards and my imagination took me back to Upton Sinclair’s book. I was shown the locations of Hull House, Haymarket Square, and the infamous Levee District. Off in the distance was the spot of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and further north, Wrigley Field. My guide pointed out the individual turfs of Bugs Moran and Al Capone, and the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. All at once, our journey came into focus; we hit the jackpot with this trip.
I know (since we are constantly reminded by Professor Rees) that Jurgis Rudkus was a fictional person. However, there were hundreds of thousands who lived his story. I thought about these people many times on our trip, nameless and homeless like so many who ask for “spare change” on the night streets of the city today. How difficult their struggles must have been in a foreign land, especially in the unforgiving winter months. What desperation they must have felt to have been jobless and blacklisted by greedy factory owners and corrupt politicians; begging for handouts in a language that no one understood. So many perished, but so many more survived. Their progeny have made this city the melting pot it is today.

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