Adventures do not always have to be experiences. Education opens numerous opportunities that don’t simply end in school. Chautauqua and the Farm Bureau are two examples of how local residents and those in the surrounding communities came to Sycamore in the pursuit of knowledge.
Chautauqua assemblies were a national movement popular in rural American until the mid-1920s. These programs attracted entire communities with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, and preachers. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted, describing these events as “the most American thing in America.”
In Sycamore, the formal Sycamore Chautauqua Association described itself as a “university and school for out-of-school people.” Thousands of people from surrounding communities would attend these events. This organization was dedicated to bringing nationally and internationally known speakers to Sycamore.
William Jennings Bryan came to Sycamore’s Chautauqua in 1922. The Sycamore True Republican covered Bryan’s speech:
The auditorium tent is larger than ever before, with a seating capacity of 1,500, and all seats were filled on Sunday evening when William Jennings Bryan, great statesman and fluent, agreeable orator, was given an ovation.
Born and raised on a farm between Genoa and Sycamore, Henry H. Parke stayed in the business of farms his whole life. He attended the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Iowa State University in his pursuit of scientific knowledge. Although he taught biology at West Virginia University after graduating, his return home to his family’s farm in 1901 rallied him to the cause of farm and soil improvement.
In 1906 he helped organize the DeKalb Farmer’s Institute as a response to the decline in soil fertility in that era. Parke helped create the Sycamore offices of the DeKalb County Soil Improvement Association—which later became the American Farm Bureau Federation. This organization was the first of its kind. Farm advisors like William Eckhardt, Charles Gunn, and Tom Roberts tested new seed in laboratories, educated farmers on soil improvement, recommended crop rotation and alternative crops, created hybrid seeds for corn, and made speeches to local farmers.
While in the early 1900s, more than 40% of Americans worked in agriculture, by the 21st century, that number was less that 1%. However, DeKalb County has bucked that trend. In 1910, the US census recorded that 2,481 farms occupied 95% of the land in DeKalb County. Almost a century later, in 2002, DeKalb County still had 816 farms that accounted for 85% of the land. DeKalb County and Sycamore, the home of “the grand old man of American Agriculture”—a name given to Parke at the City of DeKalb’s 1956 centennial, has remained true to its farming roots.