From Farmers to the Fox: The Phillips Family in Montgomery
The history of the Phillips family, and their legacy in the village.
The Albert Phillips family fled Chicago in the depth of the depression, to take up farming on the old family homestead on the corner of Albright and Baseline Roads. All up and down Baseline Road there were farms belonging to the Phillips brothers: Albert, Ed, Fay and Hal.
After a failed attempt at wheat farming in Canada, Albert landed a job as a janitor in Chicago, but he sent his wife, Rose, and his children ahead to Montgomery to live in the homestead he purchased from his parents. The farm already had 10 acres of worn out asparagus which needed to be reworked.
They arrived in Montgomery in May 1934, and Rose supervised the children getting the fields prepared for the asparagus crop they would be planting. To do this, the first year they were planted with clover to condition the soil. The following spring, the clover was plowed under before the asparagus could be planted.
The hard work began with plowing the field. A team of five horses pulled the plow. When the ground was ready, the asparagus seeds were planted in rows, with radishes planted in between. The radishes were there because they would poke through the ground first and provide shade for the budding asparagus plants. As the asparagus poked through, the rows would be weeded.
This was backbreaking work on hands and knees, and everybody pitched in. The asparagus plants looked like little fur trees. When the plants were large enough, the radishes were pulled out, and the plants were allowed to grow until at a certain point they were thinned to 8 inches apart. They grew until the third year, and then they were cut for only two weeks. After that they were established and cut the full season.
During the winter months, the whole family gathered around a kerosene heater in the barn where they warmed their hands and built the asparagus crates. They nailed together the end boards and slats to form the crates that would hold 12 bundles each. Each crop would yield about 630 crates.
As the asparagus was picked, it was bundled together in bunches held together with two rubber bands. A driver would pick the filled crates up from the roadside and deliver them to the Water Street Market in downtown Chicago. Montgomery water, which came from Grandfather Klink’s company, and Montgomery-grown asparagus were often featured items on the menus of finer restaurants; as well as the Class A passenger trains of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.
Every year, for the next 20 years, the boys would be up at 4 a.m. to cut asparagus from the middle of May until July 4. They were out the fields early and worked until it was time to start school each day. As the Phillips boys began to leave the farm, outside laborers took the jobs. During the peak picking season, Montgomery teenagers were hired to work before school. It was understood that they would be excused if they came to class late.
Throughout the 1930s, jobs were few and far between, and everybody who had a job was extremely grateful. During this period, the Mr. Phillips was able to hire extra help from the black community in Chicago where he worked as a janitor.
He knew several families with young boys who wanted work. They came out to Oswego and lived in the big farmhouse along with the family. The front part of the house was set aside for them, and the children were told those rooms were strictly for the guests, and not to intrude on their privacy.
Rose Phillips cooked for everybody, and they took their meals around the table in the big farm dining room where they prayed together, then ate together, before starting their work for the day. Herb still remembers the prayer they said together at every meal:
Thank you Lord for this our food
For life and health and everything good.
The food that she cooked on the big iron stove was fresh from her own garden. There were eggs, homemade bread and every Sunday she made a special Kuchen, or cake. She included asparagus as often as she could. One dish Herb remembers was cut-up asparagus, cooked with bacon and thickened with flour. This could be served over potatoes or toast.
The young men received $1 a day plus room and board, and it’s a good bet that they ate well. Each week they proudly took their paycheck home to Chicago to help the family. A dollar went a long way when every penny counted.
Herb Phillips is the brother of the late Jim Phillips, also known as The Fox. Herb joined the U.S. Air Force in 1945 and received a disability discharge. Today he is the proud commander of 692 veterans, members of the Disabled American Veterans. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Anita (Ness), my former classmate at Montgomery school.
Her mother Rose Klink Phillips was the daughter of Gottlieb Klink, a businessman who owned the pop factory South of the Mill, and the Montgomery Magnesia Spring Water Co. He later ran a cement block manufacturing company, whose blocks can be seen in buildings all around town today.
Rose Phillips was a teacher at Montgomery School who had as her pupil a little girl named Mary. Mrs. Phillips recognized her vocal talent and convinced her parents to find a voice coach for her. She became the internationally-known opera soprano who the world knew as Maria Matyas, but Montgomery knew as Mary Schmotzer.
The oldest daughter, Dorothy, recruited and led the crews of corn de-tasselers who worked in the nearby cornfields. She had finished two years of college before she was 18. She became an educator, as did the youngest son, Jim.
Jim later worked for the EPA and made a name for himself in environmental circles because of his activism. He was called an eco-terrorist because of his actions to call attention to the polluting of the Fox River and other waterways around Illinois. In the 1960s and '70s, his exploits were widely covered by the newspapers and magazines all around the world. His obituary was printed in the New York Times.
The members of the Phillips family left a lasting imprint on Montgomery. Like so many of these early families, the village (and the world) is a better place because of them.
ATTENTION TRAIN BUFFS: A recent story called Blood on the Tracks: Part II contained a brief account of the 1946 train wreck in Naperville that was at that considered the worst train wreck in U.S. History. I heard from many people who remembered this event and wished to learn more about it. Chuck Spinner has written a book about it called The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing. He will be signing copies of his book at the Anderson Book Store in Naperville on June 2 at 2 p.m.