Monthly Archives: July 2016

No power, but no flood—this time at least

We’ve been getting a bit of rain lately around these parts, although the Fox River has entered its usual mid-summer shallow season.

On Sunday evening, another of the spotty thunder storms we’ve been experiencing this summer rolled through, accompanied by lots of lightning, one of which struck uncomfortably near the Matile Manse, after which the lights well and truly went out.

When I say this was a spotty t-storm, I’m not understating it a bit. It never did rain from that bit of thundercloud at my son’s house, which is about a mile and a half south of us.

So there we sat with no cable TV and no Internet, which wasn’t all that big a loss since we’d both been reading anyway, although my wife was reading a dead tree book, so she needed a bit of light. Me, I was reading on my iPad’s Kindle app, so I was good. But we decided to take a ride to see what we could see and determined that it was only the seven or eight houses at our end of North Adams that had no power. Drove to Panera to charge our phones and have some over-priced soup, and then home, shortly after which the ComEd boys and girls did their thing and the power came back on.

While we did indeed lose power, at least we weren’t afflicted with a flood like the one that hit our area just 20 years ago this month. The Flood of ’96 was the most serious one the area had experienced in many decades—if ever.

Our corner of the Fox Valley got around 17” of rain the night of July 17-18, 1996, and it caused a rolling series of local disasters as the flood water drained and tried to get to the Fox River. As a result, roads that were open and passable the morning of July 18, were closed to flooding by that evening, stranding more than one person somewhere he didn’t want to be.

Our penchant for draining wetlands and turning them into either farm fields or residential or commercial subdivisions really came back to bit us during the Flood of ’96. Blackberry Creek, trying to carry a volume of runoff it was never meant to, and whose course was restricted by bridges on several county roads and state highways, spread out and flooded roads and businesses and complete housing developments, especially on Aurora’s far west side and in Bristol Township here in Kendall County. Because there was no straight route for all that water to go, it spread out, seeking a way to get to the river, flooding a huge area.

1996 7-18 Car off road in flood

This Ford Taurus station wagon encountered a washed-out culvert on Douglas Road just south of Collins Road the night of July 17-18 1996. I took the photo, which won the Spot News Photo award from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, on July 18.

Meanwhile, here in the Oswego area, normally small streams turned into raging torrents. Waubonsie Creek, taking in a huge volume of runoff, nearly took out the railroad bridge here in Oswego and did take out the venerable 1880s box truss bridge just south of the Matile Manse on North Adams Street. The whole bridge structure was picked up and washed downstream. Meanwhile, the railroad folks brought in carloads of large diameter rocks to shore up the rail bridge’s upstream piers and abutments. It worked, but it was a near-run thing.

The Fox River, generally low and sluggish stream in mid-July, also became a raging torrent, coming up out of its banks to levels not seen for many a year. At that time, my sister was living across the street from us right on the river. None of the floods any of us had ever experienced had driven the river so far out of its banks. That morning, my sister awoke to see her lawn furniture beginning to float away from her backyard. But she was a former farm girl, and so grabbed a rope, made a lasso out of it, and proceeded to lasso the lawn chairs as they floated past on the flood tide—much to the amazement of her husband, who had grown up in an apartment building on Chicago’s South Side and had only seen such things in cowboy movies.

No one was killed, but some were injured, including one fellow who had been driving on Douglas Road out east of Oswego when he encountered a culvert that was no longer there, the entire road having been washed out when the tiny stream that usually carried only field tile drainage a few miles to Waubonsie Creek turned into an angry, rushing torrent. It was dark, and the guy’s Ford Taurus station wagon fell right into the chasam that had formerly been the road crossing the trickle.

As floods went, this one was a real doozy. As somebody interested in history and in the effects we have on our environment, it was a real eye-opener as well. When I correlated subdivisions that flooded but that had never flooded before with the Little White School Museum’s collection of 1830s survey maps, invariably there were wetlands or marshy areas drawn in where those modern housing developments are located today. Mother Nature really does have a way of getting her own back, sometimes despite modern engineering’s best efforts.

As I noted above, residents of the Fox Valley have been trying to eliminate wetlands ever since the first settlers arrived, and they’ve been really good at it, too. But those old wet areas served a couple valuable purposes that the powers that be are only recently paying attention to. First of all, wetlands tend to blot up stormwater runoff, slowing it’s velocity and releasing it at slower rates. Without those wetlands, water runs off quickly and at speed, and fast-moving water is extremely destructive. Wetlands, because they temporarily hold stormwater, help recharge ground water aquifers. And they also filter stormwater so that all the debris and harmful things that build up on streets, sidewalks, and parking lots don’t get washed directly into water courses.

Not, of course that we didn’t have some pretty spectacular floods before 1996, of course. Back in the 19th Century, there were three major floods that really stuck in peoples’ minds. Back in that day, they called them “freshets,” and they made pretty big impressions.

Fox River freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868.

The 1840 freshet caused the least amount of damage, primarily because there just weren’t a whole lot of property to damage at that early date. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, noted of the 1840 flood: “The year was ushered in by one of the largest spring freshets known. Fox River flooded all the lowlands along its course, and at Millington two acres of splendid logs were carried away. Only two such freshets have been known since, in 1857 and 1868. But the last two have had bridges instead of saw logs to exert their brief power on.”

1857 Aurora freshet

The 1857 freshet left a big impression with folks living along the Fox River that year. Above, Galena Boulevard deadends at the Fox River since the bridges to Stolp Island have been washed out, as have several buildings on the island.

J .H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind, recalling that he’d gone to bed when it was still raining.

“When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

The memorable freshet of 1868, caused when a rainstorm caused the ice on the Fox River to suddenly break up, damaged the Oswego bridge but did not wash it out. Fortunately, the year before, the old wooden structure had been replaced by a new iron arch bridge. But other communities were not so lucky.

The March 12, 1868 Kendall County Record reported that: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”

Despite the rain we’ve been getting here in northern Illinois, at least we’ve had nothing so far approaching the Flood of ’96, for which we can all be thankful. But it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mother Nature in case she decides to mess with us again, just for old times sake.

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It was St. Louis vs Chicago—And we’re not talking baseball, either

Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.

You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.

From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.

Loading grain sacks

Until grain elevators were perfected, grain was shipped in sacks from the farm to market. Each sack was handled numerous times until it reached it’s ultimate destination, a process that was expensive and time-consuming.

In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.

No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.

1857 Chicago port

This detail from J. T. Palmatary’s 1857 bird’s-eye view of Chicago shows why the warehouses and grain elevators along South Water Street offered so much efficiency in handling everything from lumber to grain. All manner of transportation, including rail cars, wagons, and sail and steamships could load and unload cargoes simultaneously.

All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.

In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.

With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.

Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.

1852 St. Louis Levee

Thomas Easterly’s 1852 Daguerreotype of the busy St. Louis Levee illustrates the distance between the river and shoreline warehouses dictated by the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River’s water levels throughout the year. Every barrel, box, and sack of cargo had to be physically carried across the levy to and from waiting steamboats.

Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.

In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.

Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.

1874 Eads Bridge, St. Louis

James B. Eads’ revolutionary bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis didn’t open until 1874, more than two decades after a web of rail lines extended from Chicago to the rest of the Midwest. The bridge created the city’s first direct rail link to the east side of the Mississippi, but it proved too late to succeed in competition with Chicago.

St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.

By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.

Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.

But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.

There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.

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And plank roads seemed like such a good idea, too…

Elon Musk and his Tesla autos have been in the news lately, and not all in a good way. Apparently there’s a self-driving feature on the newest Teslas that perhaps ought to be called a ‘self-driving’ feature, especially after a Tesla recently drove itself right under a semi, killing the Tesla driver.

Tesla’s now warning owners that “self-driving” isn’t exactly full auto-pilot, but rather that it’s probably helpful if drivers pay at least minimal attention to where their cars are going. Which sounds like the kind of advice adults really shouldn’t need to be given.

A lot of work is going into creating self-driving cars these days, and not just by Musk’s Tesla. But Duncan Black, one of my favorite bloggers, is skeptical, and I think he’s right to be.

The good thing about self-driving cars, of course, is that they’d use the same ground transportation foundation that manual driving cars use, with no need to create any new infrastructure for them to use. So in that way this latest bit of transportation technology growth somewhat mirrors the thinking behind the growth of plank roads back in the first half of the 19th Century.

Starting in the late 1840s, railroad companies were established to tap the huge northern Illinois agricultural market, with the eventual goal being to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River, a transcontinental rail line then only the vision of a few dreamers. But in order to get on the way to the Big Muddy, they first had to start by crossing northern Illinois’ Fox River.

Not that the railroad promoters looked at the Fox River Valley as simply an obstacle to be dealt with, of course. The area was then, as now, an extremely rich agricultural area. Livestock and grain flowed east to Chicago from the farms that dotted the prairies in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in a broad band stretching around the growing city on the lake to the west and south. And finished goods, lumber, and other items made the return trip west, all on the terrible, inadequate roads of the era.

What farmers wanted to do was get their livestock and grain to the lucrative, fast-growing market Chicago had become. Livestock could be driven to the stockyards (we think of cattle drives as western happenings, but they took place right here in Kendall County, too), but grain had to be hauled. Chicago was such a market draw that farmers as far west as Rockford, and even Iowa, drove horse-drawn wagon loads of corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the growing market. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done, though at a relatively high cost in both time and materials.

Because of the already heavy investment in horse-drawn transport, it made sense to a lot of the strongest boosters in the Fox and DuPage River valleys to improve the area’s roads instead of investing in a completely new form of transportation technology like railroads.

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

Like many companies in the early 19th Century, the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company issued their own currency. Using the stuff was chancy at best, but in an era when recovery from the contractionary policies of the Andrew Jackson administration had destroyed the nation’s economy, it was sometimes any port in a monetary storm.

The investment was not just in horses and wagons, either. Inns and taverns along the major roads in the area, blacksmith and farrier shops, wagon makers, wheelwrights, farms that raised draft horses, veterinary facilities, farmers who grew the fodder and oats needed to feed those thousands upon thousands of horses, and all the other myriad things that made the system work was woven into the very fabric of that period’s life.

As a result, when railroad entrepreneurs began seeking routes from Chicago to the west, they ran into opposition in more than one community as local businessmen tried to keep their personal financial apple carts from overturning.

The story of Oswego’s decision to forego participation in the railroad projected to extend from Turners Junction—West Chicago—south and west across the Fox River is well known, locally at least. Oswego’s city fathers said thanks but no thanks to the railroad, which crossed the river at Aurora instead. Why did they do something that seems to us to be such a silly thing? Because they firmly believed improved roads, not railroads, were the answer to the region’s transportation dilemma.

Plank road sketch

Plank roads were built by laying down logs spaced closely together, and then topping them with two stringers. Thick planks 10 to 12 feet long were then fastened to the stringers. Plank roads worked well when new, but deteriorated quickly in northern Illinois’ climate.

In those years, roads—which were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie—turned into long stretches of impassable sticky soup every spring and after every hard rain. The availability of timber, however, meant it was possible to pave with thick wooden planks to create an all-weather surface. Such plank roads quickly became popular ways of getting crops to market. Typically, plank road companies would be formed after being chartered by the state legislature. Stock would be sold to raise money and the road would be built, with tolls charged to use the all-weather surface.

One such plank road was projected to extend from Chicago to Naperville and then on to Oswego. Capt. Joseph Naper, founder and namesake of Naperville, was one of the major promoters of that plank road. He used his considerable influence to keep the railroad from passing through Naperville, and it’s not unlikely he also persuaded Oswego officials to oppose the rail line crossing the Fox River at Oswego. Naper, like other men of substance at that time, had interests in hotels and taverns, as well as in several other aspects of road transportation, including lots of plank road company stock.

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Then there was the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company, established in the late 1840s, with the aim of extending a plank road from Oswego to Joliet, and from there due east across Will County to Indiana. Promoters and officers of the plank toll road read like a roll call of early Joliet business and political leaders, including Illinois Governor-to-be Joel Matteson.

According to Joliet railroad historian, Bill Molony, the O&IPR Company’s survey for the road’s route was completed in May 1851 and the right-of-way was obtained. According to Molony, the section from Plainfield to Joliet was opened in 1852 or 1853. Travel on that stretch was heavy, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the road would quickly be extended west to Oswego. And, in fact, work started on the stretch west of Plainfield to Oswego, but funding quickly dried up as the newfangled railroad was proving to be not only feasible but also faster and more economical even than plank road traffic.

In the end, of course, the enthusiasm for plank roads turned out to be a blunder. Steam engines didn’t require oats or horseshoes and they didn’t get tired or die while working hard in hot Illinois summers. They could run all day and all night, rain or shine, winter or summer. Once the classic “I” shaped steel rail was perfected, maintenance on rail lines became a relatively minor part of the entire cost of transporting goods. Not so plank roads, which required constant maintenance and even then the surface often proved unreliable. Broken planks damaged wagons and often injured or even killed horses.

By the late 1850s, rails not roads were seen to be the transportation wave of the future. But the damage to local economies had already been done. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, an early settler writing under the pen name “Plow Boy,” reported that:

“In 1850, a [rail] road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That a plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads.”

As a result of this misplaced faith, Naperville didn’t get a rail link to Chicago until the mid-1860s, and Oswego and Yorkville didn’t get their rail links until 1870. At least Naperville’s rail line was a main line link; Oswego’s and Yorkville’s was a spur line.

To us, with the advantage of 20/20 historical hindsight, the decision to refuse participation in extending rail lines, but instead to champion plank roads seems crazy. But at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable and justified by the economic imperatives of the day. The challenge has never been to look back to see what we’ve done wrong; it’s always been to try to look ahead and figure out which of the available options is the right one.

 

 

 

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Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology