Category Archives: Farming

Visitor from the past would find a confusing modern farmscape

While development has taken a substantial toll on agricultural land here in Kendall County, there are still plenty of planted fields left for farmers to harvest this time of year. From the county’s congested tier of three northern-most townships, just take a drive west on Galena Road, or south on Route 47 or southwest on Route 71, and it doesn’t take long to leave tract homes and strip centers behind, and find yourself surrounded by fields that grow corn and soybeans, just as they have for generations.

It’s easy to think that our forebears would find the landscape on Route 47 down near Lisbon Center or on Grove Road south of Route 126 familiar. It’s rural; many of the farm homes are products of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There are even a few (very few) gravel roads to reinforce the feeling of stepping back in time.

But assuming we could crank up the Wayback Machine, and send Mr. Peabody and Sherman back to, say, 1870, to bring a farmer back for a brief summer visit to his future, he might find some similarities, but mostly he’d be struck by profound differences.

First and foremost, even if plunked down in a completely rural area, out of sight of any buildings, our farmer of the past would undoubtedly be struck by the odd uniformity of the agricultural landscape. Familiar, though unusually large and densely planted corn fields would stretch in every direction, but what, he would wonder, are those other row crops that seem to have bean leaves? And where in the world are the familiar fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rye? What’s happened to the pastures and the hay fields?

And where have all the fences gotten to? How on earth do modern farmers keep the neighbors’ cattle and hogs from eating growing crops with no fences to keep them out of the fields?

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm

The Otto Johnston farmstead in 1890 had a barn, a corn crib, and a chicken house, but no machine shed–the simple farm equipment of the era was stored in the barn and crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

That nearby farmstead looks odd, with no barn, and only some cylindrical metal buildings with conical roofs and one very large shed that looks as if it, too, is made of metal. And such a huge door it has. No cattle shed; no corn crib; no chicken house; no hog houses. The farmhouse lawn seems trimmed so neatly it’s almost unnatural, but where is the orchard?

Unlike our visitor from the past, today’s farmers operate in an either-or environment. They’re either grain farmers or livestock farmers. Our visitor from the past came from an era when every farmer grew both grain and livestock. Moreover, both were integral to the economic heath of every farmstead.

Grain was not only grown for market, like it is today, but was also grown for use on the farm to feed hogs, cattle, and poultry. Hogs and cattle were driven to market, meaning less grain had to be hauled over the abominable roads of the era. Poultry was kept for the eggs produced–which were traded for groceries in town–and used for meat on the farm and also to trade in town.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

Russell Rink had plenty of business for his custom baling operation in East Oswego Township in 1947 when this snapshot was taken, since alfalfa, timothy, and other hay crops were common on area farms. (Little White School Museum collection)

The manure produced as a byproduct of feeding hogs, cattle, and poultry was, in turn, used to fertilize the farmer’s grain fields.

A variety of crops were grown every year, and the fields in which they were grown were rotated each year, with pasture or hay land part of the rotation so the land could lay fallow for at least a year with no crops leaching nutrients out of the soil. The Anglo Saxon root of the word fallow refers to the colors of pale red or pale yellow—the color of fields tilled but not sown with seed.

Soybeans were not part of that rotation until they were popularized in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. County agricultural agents instructed farmers in the fine points of their cultivation and harvest, and soon they became a popular cash crop—one probably unfamiliar to our visitor from the past.

2017 fenceless landscape

DeKalb County’s fenceless landscape is common on northern Illinois farms these days, With no livestock on farms, there’s no need to waste productive land with fence rows.

What happened to the crops with which our visitor was familiar? Where are the oats, the wheat, the rye and barley? Farmers not only specialize these days, but so do regions of the country. Illinois’ humid climate is not conducive to growing wheat, so its cultivation has migrated west of the Mississippi to drier the Great Plains. Oats were once necessary to feed the millions of horses that powered the nation’s farms and cities, and for on-farm livestock feed, needs that have largely disappeared today. So too have modern times sharply reduced the use of rye and barley.

Pastureland—where are the county’s pastures? Most have been plowed for cropland in the absence of livestock. The same with the hay fields that once covered thousands of Kendall County farmland acres. The sight of rolling stands of clover, timothy, and alfalfa rippling in the wind of mid-summer is largely a thing of our past that faded away with the livestock that once required them for food. It makes a person wonder what Timothy Hansen would think, the Norwegian immigrant who imported the nutritious forage grass named Phleum pratense to his farm in Virginia in 1721. So well did he conduct his campaign in its favor that farmers nicknamed the grass “timothy” in his honor. Where once timothy grew on virtually every farm, today its presence has dwindled, another victim of changes in farming.

Farm orchards, too, have largely departed leaving only memories of stands of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees once prized for their abundant fruit. As have the dirt roads with which our farmer of the past would have been familiar. When studies were done in the early 20th century, it was found farmers’ cars and trucks got much better gas mileage on gravel roads, road maintenance costs were less, and wear and tear on vehicles was far, far less. And asphalt roads were far, far better than gravel roads in terms of damage to vehicles, mileage, and maintenance costs. So dirt roads have disappeared. Gravel roads, at least in most of Kendall County, have disappeared, too, because they’re expensive to maintain.

As our visiting farmer leaves to head down-time to his home, he is probably happy to get back to where farming makes some sense and where the parts of the landscape make cultural and economic sense to him. As for us, it’s another late autumn of taking life the way we find it in Kendall County.

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Eight

So we got to Polson, Montana just fine, although we had to drive through some mid-September snow to get there. Although it was cloudy, rainy, snowy, and rainy again as we forged north from Salt Lake City, it was a pretty drive. We crossed the Continental Divide twice along the route north, and again my mind kept straying back to Lewis and Clark who were the first Americans to penetrate this vast, distant wilderness.

2017 9-15 Flathead Lake

Even on a cloudy day, the view coming down out of the mountains to Flathead Lake at Polson, Montana is a pretty sight.

Bob and his wife live on a small ranch just outside Polson, with mountains for a dramatic backdrop. A friend of mine suggested it is a ranchette, but I’ve always figured ranchettes were western hobby farms. George W. Bush’s ‘ranch’ was a hobby farm—a ranchette. Bob’s place is a small working ranch, where the deer and the yaks play in the pasture.

As Bob observed the night we got there, I’m his oldest friend and he’s mine. We met when we were six years old the first day of classes at Church School out in rural Wheatland Township. There were five kids in our first grade class, Bob and I, and two other boys, Gene and Ricky, and one girl, Diane. Bob’s farm was just up the road about a mile from my parents’ farm, with Church School about the same distance south of our farm.

Bob and Roger

The author (left) and his good buddy Bob out on the farm with two friendly dogs. Note the box of Sugar Frosted Flakes kept ready to hand.

Bob and I and Diane eventually went through all 12 grades together. But we didn’t know what the future would hold for those of us going to that one-room country school.

We loved watching TV and fooling around on our walks home from school in the afternoon. When “The Adventures of Superman” hit the television airwaves, we were enthralled, with the episode where Superman creates a diamond out of a lump of coal by super-squeezing it making a particular impression. On our way home one day we found a lump of coal alongside the road—a not unlikely occurrence in the days when most of the farmhouses in our neighborhood had coal-fired furnaces. We figured that if Superman could make a diamond by squeezing a lump of coal, maybe we could do the same thing. We knew we weren’t super-strong, so we found as many big rocks as we could and piled them carefully on top of the chunk of coal and then proceeded to check it every day when we walked home—we figured we could really use the profits from selling a diamond. But alas, the coal stayed coal and no diamond ever appeared.

Jim & Pidge

Hal Roach Studios made three Jim and Pidge movies staring Jimmy Rogers and Noah Beery Jr. in the early 1940s. They later became serialized staples on kids’ TV shows like “Captain Video and His Video Rangers.”

We were also big fans of Captain Video (and his Video Rangers), and watched his show religiously, especially enjoying the short cowboy movies and serials that were part of the program. One of our favorites was the Jim and Pidge series, with Bob always wanting to be Jim, meaning I had to be content with being Pidge.

In one of those films, there was a bit about a rancher raising Brahma bulls that immediately caught our eye—because Bob’s dad had one of the evil-tempered creatures out in their cattle yard. After seeing that the bulls would supposedly chase anything that was red, we had to try it out, which we did with a red bandana. Not sure if it was the color or just the fact we were inside his fence, but we found out Brahma bulls do not like pieces of cloth waived at them. Fortunately, we were pretty fast on our feet (you accelerate pretty quickly with a thousand pounds of bad mood with blood in its eye chasing you) and the fence was easy to climb.

After high school, I stayed around our hometown of Oswego, while Bob and his wife moved west, first to Colorado and then to Montana, where he worked for power companies and actually became one of those cowboys portrayed by Jim and Pidge.

He spent many summers for a couple decades inspecting high-tension lines through mountain areas of those two states on horseback. He had to visually inspect each tower or pole and keep a diary of the condition of the tower and the lines to make sure there were no situations that might cause wildfires. If he found repairs that had to be done, he’d call it in by radio and they’d send a helicopter and repair crew out to the site because the lines he checked were inaccessible by motor vehicle. He said it was sort of lonely, just him, his horse, his packhorse, and his dog dozens of miles from nowhere. But added that the solitude and the scenery were great.

After he retired he took up another career as a horse buyer, trainer and transporter. For a while he specialized in breaking wild horses to ride, but was also hired to train horses for both riding and driving. He got a job with a consortium of drug companies working on various equine disease vaccines and was responsible for buying horses for their trials, training them to stand quietly while blood samples were drawn or they were vaccinated or other tests were done. Then he arranged their sales to good homes after the trials were complete. He said he considered doing one more stint with the equine drug companies, but noted that like the rest of us, he’s getting too old for the training/breaking part and isn’t anxious to get any more broken bones. It’s a younger man’s game, he ruefully noted.

He’s currently engaged in raising those yaks that we were surprised to see in his back pasture. He raises them for some rich guy who’s invested in yak breeding stock. Apparently yak meat is very healthy and is sought-after by a certain class of people because of its low fat content and other reasons I can’t remember right now. Every spring, Yaks can be combed out and the hair they shed can be spun into very fine yarn. Also, yak milk can be turned into a fine butter.

Bob said they’re better tempered than cattle, and they’re also smaller and eat less. One main concern is grizzly bears, two of which the fish and game people had to trap in his back pasture last year after they killed a couple of his neighbor’s llamas (Montana stock raising isn’t exactly what I’d pictured). The sow grizzly was relocated about 30 miles away. The boar, which turned out to be the biggest ever trapped by the Montana fish and game folks, had to be euthanized because this was the third incident where it had definitely killed livestock.

Typical Polson espresso kiosk

A typical Polson espresso kiosk.

Modern Montana livestock raising was a surprise, but I was happy to see the area around Flathead Lake is still obsessed with espresso. The stuff is sold in little kiosks that look like those old Fotomat booths that used to dot shopping centers. Mornings, especially, dusty pick-up trucks with gun racks in their back windows line up for their morning pick-me-ups.

So yaks and llamas and espresso and cowboys…it’s good to get out and see the countryside so you don’t get too settled in your notions about the way things are or ought to be in areas you’ve never been before.

 

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

Been a few days since I’ve checked in as we continued our Undaunted Courage 2017 Tour up the mountain chain from Salt Lake City into Montana, the main reason being contracting a nasty case of bronchitis.

But I’m feeling well enough to finally make some sense when I write—although I’m sure plenty will contest the fact—so it’s time to get back to recording things before, as happened to the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, the account of our trip is lost in the mists of history.

The trip north out of Salt Lake got off to a slow, rainy, start since, as it turns out, rush hours in big cities is the same the nation over. As we inched north on I-15 it occurred to me that big city traffic and streetscapes are pretty much the same everywhere we’ve traveled.

But after getting north of the city center, traffic eased considerably as we drove into cattle, mining, and oil country.

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

Although it was snowing pretty good in Lima, MT, it fortunately wasn’t sticking to the roads as I snapped this shot in the parking lot at Jen’s Cafe & Cabins.

Along about Idaho Falls, we got into what turned out to be a fairly vigorous series of snow squalls that followed us north along the chain. By the time we stopped for lunch at Jen’s Café & Cabins just across the Idaho state line in tiny Lima, Montana, there was about 5” of the stuff on the ground, with more coming down. Definitely a day for hot beef sandwiches. The locals were shaking their heads; Sept. 15 is a mite early for more than a dusting of snow, even in this high country.

Driving ever farther north, we eventually ran out of the snow as we crossed the continental divide twice.

Speaking of undaunted courage, you can’t get away from the redoubtable Lewis and Clark on I-15, passing as you do right by the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Clark’s Lookout State Park. Looking at the landscape as we drove, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as it was when the Corps of Discovery marched through—outside infrequent fences and pumping oil wells, the landscape itself hasn’t changed a whole lot.

At Butte, Montana we picked up I-90, and headed farther up the mountains to Missoula. From there U.S. Route 93 took us right north up to the foot of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson where my childhood buddy Bob and his wife live.

It was definitely cattle and horse country, but it also turned out to be wheat and potato country. Farmers rotate their potato and wheat crops to benefit the soil that’s none too deep in the river valleys where farming is conducted. We drove through just after the wheat harvest had been completed and the order of the day was baling straw, stacking the huge round bales modern machinery creates, and hauling them to market.

Unlike Illinois’ rural areas, local gravel roads are still the norm in the west. In the urbanizing Midwest of northern Illinois we’ve gradually replaced most rural gravel roads with either tar and chip or asphalt-surfaced roads, that are cheaper to maintain and which are more economical for drivers. Blacktopped roads create far less wear and tear on vehicles, and both cars and trucks get far better gas mileage on hard-surfaced roads.

Back in the 1920s when Illinois was considering how best to spend proceeds of a $63 million bond issue voters had approved in 1918, they paid attention to studies carried on concerning fuel efficiency on various road surfaces. In July 1922, Concrete Highway Magazine reported that a road test in Cleveland, Ohio measured fuel efficiency on five 2-ton White trucks loaded to capacity traveling over roads with various surfaces. The trucks averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon of gasoline over concrete roads and 9 mpg on gravel roads.

Driving as we were on a mixture of concrete and asphalt hard roads, I got to wondering about the relative fuel efficiencies of the two surfaces. Especially since concrete roads sometimes create really annoying road noise while asphalt roads are pretty quiet as a rule. I checked out various hypermiling sites on the Net—if you want to find out a bunch of tricks to stretch your gas mileage, the hypermiling guys and gals are your ticket—and the consensus seems to be that the hardest surface provides the best mileage. Period. Asphalt, it turns out, has a softer surface that offers a big of ‘give’ which cuts down on mileage. Not a lit, but a bit.

So up to Polson we drove, arriving when it was a bit cloudy, but where the backdrop was spectacular. Pulling in, Bob happily greeted us as we stretched our legs a bit. “So, what do you think of those?” Bob asked, waiving his hand towards his back pasture.

Yak

Home, home on the range where the deer and the yaks play.

We were farm kids together, and his dad kept Brahma bulls that, crazy kids we were, we used to tease with red handkerchiefs, so I was ready to see some prize cattle or horses (Bob’s sort of retired these days, but he’s still an honest-to-God cowboy), but instead I saw a group of short shaggy black animals ambling around out by the pasture’s back fence.

“Nice yaks, don’t you think,” he asked with a little grin.

More later…

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Reapers have vanished, but not reaping…

The other day, as I was driving there and back again, the CNBC business news came on the radio, and the newsreader launched into a piece about the weather affecting crops in the Midwest. Farm income is expected to decline, he reported, and as a result stock prices for farm equipment manufacturers are expected to decline. That’s because, he said, farmers will be “buying fewer tractors and reapers.”

In reply to which I muttered under my breath that I suspected the horse collar market would be pretty soft, too. And the buggy whip market didn’t even bear thinking about.

To be fair, the newswriter was probably trying to get the idea across that farm equipment manufacturers in general might be seeing some tough times on the horizon. You can almost see the words rattling around in the writer’s heat—what do farmers use out there on the (as the Chicago Tribune once put it) the rural plains? Well, tractors, sure, but what else to farmers do? They sow and they reap—they must use reapers!

You’d think the media big boys would be able to afford to hire folks who know a little something about what they’re writing about. It’s entirely possible farmers will be buying fewer tractors next year, but farmers haven’t bought reapers for well over a century now.

Cutting grain with scythe & cradle.jpg

Using scythe and cradle grain was cut by hand. Then it had to be gathered into bundles and piled in shocks to dry before it was threshed, again by hand.

A reaper, like a corn planter or a hay rake, was a machine with a special purpose—it cut “small grain” (oats, wheat, rye, barley) and prepared it to be bundled and allowed to dry before it was threshed—the grain separated from the stalks and chaff.

Reapers were some of the first harvesting machines and were the product of Yankee ingenuity. Before their advent, grain had to be cut by hand with scythes and then gathered into bundles by stoop labor that was laborious indeed. Only after the bundles were stacked into shocks and allowed to dry would they be hauled to the barn where they’d be threshed to remove the stalks and then the grain winnowed to remove the chaff.

McCormick Reaper

Cyrus McCormick’s reaper mechanized the grain cutting process, significantly improving farm productivity. McCormick Reapers were manufactured in Kendall County in the early 1840s.

With the frontier moving west into the prairies of Illinois where the rich soil produced bumper grain crops, Cyrus McCormick was among those who identified a need for a machine that would ease the labor and quicken the pace of the harvest. He came up with the first commercially successful harvester, a machine drawn by a horse or team that cut the grain stalks and laid them out where two men riding the harvester could bundle them and drop them on the ground to be later stacked into shocks to dry.

McCormick’s genius was his decision not to immediately manufacture all his own harvesters, but instead to sell franchises, letting others bear the cost of building manufacturies and producing his machines. Here in Kendall County, Isaac Townsend bought one of the first McCormick franchises and in 1841 began manufacturing harvesters in a small factory just off what is today Grove Road south of Oswego.

McCormick Binder

McCormick’s binder provided one more step in increased productivity by automatically tying the bundles of grain.

Powered by a steam engine shipped all the way from New York State, Townsend’s Oswego Manufacturing Company produced harvesters for a few years before the realities of his factory’s distance from raw materials and lack of a good transportation system led to its shutdown. But Townsend and the other franchisees helped spur others to perfect and then improve on McCormick’s basic design. In Plano, for instance, the Hollisters and Stewards developed an improved harvester that eventually added the capability to mechanically create and bind the bundles of grain. The development of the binder meant fewer farm laborers were needed to harvest much more grain, and productivity took another giant leap.

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

Binders, combined with steam-powered threshing machines provided another huge jump in productivity. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring harvests grain in 1911. (Little White School Museum photo)

But even with the binder, bundles of grain had to be stacked to dry and then threshed. The invention of the threshing machine—also called the separator because it separated grain from stalks and chaff—in the 1840s helped a lot. With the invention of self-propelled steam engines that could not only move themselves from farm to farm, but could also tow a threshing machine, too, productivity got another big boost as farmers banded together to buy the expensive steamers and threshing machines.

The increase in U.S. farm productivity in the 60 years between 1830 and 1890, thanks to increasing mechanization, was nothing less than astonishing. In 1830, it took about 300 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, thanks to mechanization, it took just 50 man-hours to produce that same 100 bushels.

Modern combine

Modern combines have reduced the labor needed to produce 100 bushels of grain by 300 times compared to the prairie farmers of the 1830s.

Farm equipment manufacturers continued innovating and with economical internal combustion engine-powered tractors they also came up with a combined harvester that not only cut ripe grain in the field, but also threshed it to remove the stalks and winnowed it to separate out the chaff. These combines (combined harvesters) were first pulled by those new internal combustion tractors. Later, but not much later, self-propelled combines were introduced. It didn’t take long for the innovators to realize that the same machine could be used for both harvesting small grains as well as the newly introduced soybeans. And then somebody figured out how to design a combine that, just by changing the head—the mechanism that cuts and gathers the grain—on the combine you could turn it into a machine that also picked, husked, and shelled corn. And that leap led to the gigantic harvesting machines you see working in the fields from late summer on—one machine that replaced the harvester, the binder, the threshing machine, the corn picker/husker, and the corn sheller.

What has been the effect of all that mechanization on farm productivity? Nowadays, it takes less than three man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—100 times less labor than it took our ancestors in the 1830s.

So here we are, nearly into September and the harvest of small grains is finished, the soybean harvest is coming up, and the corn harvest is at least on the horizon. For one more season, the farm calendar is shedding pages as folk in the country look forward to bringing in another crop.

 

 

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This family reunion a living link to pioneer prairie farmers

It was a beautiful day last Sunday to hold a family reunion, so it’s lucky that’s what my clan was up to.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. around 55 members of the related Lantz and Stoner families got together to chat and have a wonderful potluck dinner, just as they’ve been doing for the last 90 years. The first reunion was held in 1927 at my great-grandparents’ former farm—at the time it was worked by one of their sons—and 127 relatives showed up for the fun. We’ve met every summer since at various places. Although the place has changed from time to time, the reunion’s been held on the second Sunday in August since 1936.

Although there’s only one active farming family in the clan these days, there were some retired farmers in the crowd Sunday.

When the reunion got started, farmers predominated. And, in fact, that first reunion was held “the Sunday after the plowing match,” the minutes of the meeting state. Which plowing match? The Wheatland Plowing Match, of course. And what’s a plowing match? Well, there’s a story there.

The Lantz and Stoner families are both of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock. Baltzer Lantz arrived in 1752 and eventually settled in Lancaster in southeast Pennsylvania. A mason by trade, he helped build forts during the French and Indian War and founded a family that would go on to spread west, first to the tallgrass prairies in Illinois, then to the shortgrass Kansas plains, and finally all the way to the Pacific shore.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape where the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held looks more like Nebraska than northern Illinois in his Malcolm Rance photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

A century after Baltzer arrived aboard the ship Phoenix at Philadelphia harbor, his descendants loaded up their wagons and headed west to pioneer new land between the DuPage and Fox rivers in northern Illinois. The prairies of Will County’s Wheatland Township were so treeless they resembled more the flat Nebraska plains than land you’d expect to see in northern Illinois. As a result of that lack of timber, much of that rich land was still unclaimed in 1850 when the Lantz family, along with the Slicks and Shaals and Stoners and others made their way west. Settlement had demanded a lot of timber for building log cabins and outbuildings, splitting into rails for the miles of fences needed, for firewood, and for crafting looms and other tools needed to survive on the frontier. But by 1850, balloon framing using sawn lumber instead of log construction had been invented and was in increasingly wide use in northern Illinois. So houses and barns and machine sheds rose on the prairie with the work of those Pennsylvania Dutchmen and their families.

At the same time, an influx of Scots and English farmers, along with a number of German farmers direct from Germany was also taking place. From the Oswego Prairie east of that village, all the way to the DuPage River, the rich black soil was soon being turned by horse-drawn plows and planted in corn, wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

The groups seemed to work well together, too. The Germans from Germany spoke no English, but they fit right in with the Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of which still spoke German at home. So prevalent were German-speaking folks around about Naperville in the 19th Century that J.L. Nichols—academic, printer, and namesake of Naperville’s Nichols Library—found it profitable in 1891 to publish The Business Guide, or Safe Methods of Business, a book with instructions in both German and English on how to draw up legal documents such as bills of sale and deeds in each language. I donated my family’s copy of Nichols’ book to the Naperville Heritage Society in 2012.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This image of the 1915 Wheatland Plowing Match shows some of the tents for the dining and exhibition areas. By this time, autos were replacing horses and buggies. (Little White School Museum photo)

The British and Scots farmers also settled in with their German-speaking neighbors, and the entire neighborhood became a real community. The great contribution of the Brits and Scots was the introduction of the latest scientific farming methods that had been perfected across the Atlantic. From proper drainage of wetlands to increase arable land to the introduction of blooded breeding livestock to the best and most efficient way to till the soil, farmers like the Pattersons, Stewarts, and Kings introduced the latest thinking. And the result of that was, a couple decades after they arrived, establishing the Wheatland Plowing Match in 1876.

A combined county fair and precision plowing competition, the annual event drew thousands to the Wheatland prairie each September, which placed it in the relative down time after the harvest of small grains and before the big corn harvest. The Sept. 11, 1879 Kendall County Record gave a good rundown of specifics behind the annual event’s competition:

There will be a plowing match on the farm of William King in Wheatland, Will county, just east of Oswego township Saturday, September 20th. Said match will be open to all residents of the town.

Straightness, neatness, and evenness of furrow to be considered. No plowing to be less than six inches deep.

Each plow will be required to finish three quarters of an acre in three and one-half hours. Plowing is to commence at 9 o’clock, a.m., sharp.

Sulky and gang plows will be exhibited by the agents of different manufactories and tested at 2 o’clock.

Judges of the walking plows: Henry Mussey, Thomas Stewart, George Leppert.

Judges of riding plows: Thomas Varley, Wm. Sillers, and Zach Fry.

The competition continued until 1976. After that, the Wheatland Plowing Match Association continued in business for several years promoting the history of prairie farming in Wheatland Township until they disbanded in 2014, turning over their records and funds to the Naperville Heritage Society.

2016 Reunion

The food tables at the 2016 Lantz-Stoner Family Reunion after folks have filled their plates the first time. The related families held their 90th annual reunion Aug. 13 in Oswego.

Those Pattersons who started the plowing match soon married into the Pennsylvania Dutch farming families, including my own and in the 1890s, the plowing match was held on my great-grandfather’s farm.

As a result of all that intermarrying, when that first family reunion was held in 1927, there were all sorts of families represented from the Pattersons and Lantzes to the Boughtons and Books and a number of others who are memorialized in the names of roads in DuPage, Will, and Kendall counties.

Today, those flat, rich prairies are growing mostly homes, roads, schools, and businesses. Farmers are slowly being squeezed farther and farther west as development starts picking up once again following the big housing bust of 2008. In a way, I guess, our family reunion represents a sort of social memory of that vibrant era of prairie farming when the land and the people were both new, and eager to do the absolute best they could in their chosen profession tilling the soil.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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