Building for the Future
The railroad changed life in DeKalb County. Communities, businesses, and farmers quickly realized that it was essential to be connected to this new form of transportation to be successful.
The Marsh brothers moved their business to Sycamore in 1869 along the Chicago & North Western railroad. They employed nearly 300 people at the height of their operation, when Sycamore’s population was only 2,852.
The Marsh brothers held important patents on farm equipment, particularly the Marsh Harvester, which could cut grain while operators stood on the harvester to bind it. It cut harvesting time, labor, and costs in half. Marsh Harvesters quickly became popular among farmers and were shipped to markets around the world.
Eventually, when the company folded, the McCormick Harvesting Company, in Chicago, took over the patents and was highly successful in manufacturing the Marsh brothers’ products.
Sandwich Manufacturing Company
In 1856 Augustus Adams started a branch of his Elgin business in Sandwich with a foundry and machine shop prepared to do casting of every description. The idea was to develop a practical portable corn sheller. The first machine was built a few years later, and by 1861 orders were coming from all over. Six years later, the Sandwich Manufacturing Company was formally organized.
By 1882, Sandwich Manufacturing Company employed 250 men, including 22 men just in the paint room. A January 1884 newspaper article said they had sold and shipped 2062 corn shellers from September through January. The demand for machinery kept growing, and so did the building and work force.
The Sandwich Manufacturing Company made farm implements, especially corn shellers and hay presses, later adding hay loaders and rakes, grain elevators, and gasoline engines. Many shipments went as far as South America.
Hinckley Tile Factory
Many early DeKalb County farmers had to remove excess water from their fields. The invention of subsurface drainage tiles made this process faster, resulting in higher crop yields. Comparing the amount of cultivated land in Squaw Grove in 1870 to 1884 shows an increase of 15,967 acres.
The story is not only the impact of the tiles, but how Hinckley took advantage of their clay soil to make the tile and brick needed by area farmers, and ship it by train.
Kirkland Sheep Yards
The sheep business and the railroad were responsible for the growth of the town of Kirkland. By law, sheep coming from the west could ride the rail no more than 36 hours, and Kirkland was that distance from Omaha, Nebraska, where millions of sheep began their journey to Chicago packing plants. The sheep were watered, fed, and sheared in Kirkland. Many students remember letting the “sea of white” pass into the next pasture before they could continue to school.
Education and training programs became powerful tools for modernizing rural communities. Over the years, one of the most significant changes in farming was the transition from family farms, focused on plowing and harvesting, to the more scientific agribusiness of today.
Science in Farming
DeKalb County provided many leaders in the transition toward increasing use of science and research in farming. H.H. Parke, William G. Eckhardt, Charles Gunn, and Thomas Roberts, Sr., all strongly believed in new concepts in farming. They also had the relationships, trust, and charisma to inspire farmers to change the way they had been farming their entire lives.
In a 10-year period from 1912 to 1922 Parke, with Eckhardt’s help, convinced farmers throughout the county to change the composition of the soil. They added great loads of potash, started rotating crops, changed from timothy grass to alfalfa, and planted some of the state’s first soybeans.
DeKalb County went from nearly last in the region in agricultural production to among the first in the nation in just those ten years.
Evolution of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau
After attending his first DeKalb County Farmer’s Institute in 1903, H.H. Parke, along with others, realized the necessity of a program that would keep the soil from wearing out. At the suggestion of farmer/banker Fred B. Townsend, the DeKalb County Farmer’s Club (later the Sycamore Farmer’s Club) was organized. They hosted the first Mid-Winter Exhibit and Institute in 1912. The purpose of this fair was to “bring closer to home the active farmers of this vicinity, the best and latest methods applicable to their business, and to give added inspiration to all interested in this industry.”
These leaders had the foresight to realize the importance of conveying the knowledge and practices from the University of Illinois to area farmers. William G. Eckhardt became the first “county agriculturalist” or advisor on June 1, 1912. On March 27, 1912, the charter was issued for the DeKalb County Soil Improvement Association, which eventually evolved into the DeKalb County Farm Bureau.
The main emphasis during the first few years of the organization was to replace much of the timothy grass with clover and alfalfa. Efforts were also made to import the best seed from other states and encouraged the use of limestone and raw rock phosphate to raise the soil pH.
The Farm Bureau still functions as a resource for farmers, giving advice on seeds and soil, providing insurance and other financial services for farmers, and serving as a center for farm life.
DeKalb County Agricultural Association Formed
Five years later, in 1917, the Soil Improvement Association established the DeKalb County Agricultural Association (DeKalb Ag), a business that focused on developing better seeds. DeKalb Ag quickly became a leader in the seed industry, which led to the groundbreaking development of hybrid seeds. The first corn hybrid ever, DeKalb 404A hybrid corn, was released by Gunn and Roberts in 1934. It quickly became the top-selling seed corn in the industry.
By the 1930s, much of urban America and many towns were electrified. Rural areas were not. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) changed that by bringing electric power to the countryside. In 1949 the Page-Hill Act added telephone lines to the law, finally bringing telephones to rural America, where only 5% of farmers had access to this technology.
Genoa’s Leich Electric was a pioneer in telephone instruments and switchboards. They provided equipment nationally.
This issue parallels today’s internet service.
Thirty-nine percent of rural Americans lack home broadband service versus 4% in cities. Those outside of cities usually also pay more for lower quality service.
In 2010 the Illinois Fiber Resources Group (iFiber) was established after NIU received a $68.5 million grant to construct an almost 900-mile network across nine counties in Illinois. The project was completed in 2013.
Henry Beard and Family
The Beard family is an example of two types of crossroads. Their family farmed the land close to the North Grove School, which is near a crossroads. They also were the first African-American family in Sycamore.
Henry Beard was a slave in Kentucky who ran away during the Civil War, and joined the 105th Illinois as a cook. After the war, Beard and his wife Judy moved to Sycamore and lived in a two-room house on the five acres he had purchase from Deacon David West in “the Big Woods” north of Sycamore near North Grove School.
After ten years there, they moved to a larger home on another portion of land a mile west of Brickville Road. The Beards had 14 children. Descendants still try to attend the North Grove School Summer Open House every year.
1950s - 1980s
A significant change occurred during the 1950s and continued through the 1980s as farming moved beyond the community and became big business. Early on, farming was considered a way of life, but by the 1950s it was looked at as a career and was therefore professionalized.
This evolution started with improved roads, faster cars and trucks, and expanding populations, and was then amplified with returning military personnel after World War II. Consequently, the number of farmers began to decrease, and those who remained turned to outside experts and outside suppliers (seed producers, chemical corporations, machine companies) to become more successful.
Locally, many farmers maintained their relationship with the Farm Bureau and DeKalb Ag as their services expanded, creating a livestock marketing association, a farm management and record-keeping service, a soil testing service, a grain export facility, and a meat processing facility. Programs like 4-H and FFA also became a popular way to keep children interested in farming so they stayed in the community.
Additionally, the globalization of the markets appeared during these years. Crops went beyond state and regional territories and even reached Japan, Germany, and England. DeKalb was one of the first counties to work directly with foreign countries in order to expand their markets.
Due to the success of competing in a world market, funds were available to support local community needs. The Farm Bureau was instrumental in the opening of Kishwaukee Community College in 1968, and DeKalb Ag was involved in helping to establish Kishwaukee Community Hospital in 1972.
Storage of grain in the Midwest has been an integral part of rural life since the beginning of farming: first in wooden barns, followed by concrete silos and today by enormous metal towers that conserve grains before their transport to urban destinations, both national and international.
Good Roads Movement
Roadways within the United States before the Lincoln Highway were often a muddy wash of dirt and low-quality gravel.
Carl Fisher, who conceived of the idea of the Lincoln Highway, decided to work with local communities to complete the project through their help with funding and goodwill. He accomplished through the creation of seedling miles—a mile of paved and graded concrete roadway.
A mile-long stretch just outside of Malta was the site of the highway’s first seedling mile and was the nation’s first concrete-paved, rural roadway.
Construction in Malta began September 14, 1914, and was completed November 12 the same year, with funding of $3,000 from the county board, $2,000 from local contributors, and $1,000 from Freed Willard, who also requested that his driveway be paved. The construction was also supplied by 8,000 donated barrels of concrete and was finally completed on November 12, 1914.
Residents even used the Malta seedling mile as a makeshift dance hall and roller derby.
The Lincoln Highway ushered in a new era of travel in the country. It provided a great economic boon for small towns and villages between larger cities and was a popular route across the country in its early years.
The idea of traveling across the country, the fun of visiting the sites along the way, and the love of the open road were all born from the completion of this road. Today, the seedling mile outside of Malta remains and is now part of US 30 and Illinois Route 38.
Education and Training
From its inception, the founders of Kishwaukee Community College wanted to show the college’s commitment and connection to the local communities in its support and deep-rooted bond with agriculture. In February 1965, the Citizen’s Advisory Committee of the DeKalb Community School District held meetings with 14 school districts. Officials from Ogle, DeKalb, and LaSalle counties met at the Shabbona High School to explore the need for a community college in the area. On January 14, 1967, it was decided that Malta would be the site of the proposed college due to its designation as a college for local farmers and their families. The referendum passed with a vote of 4,096 to 2,069.
The support of farmers was essential to Kishwaukee College’s success. Former college president Norman Jenkins explained, “When we needed some extra equipment for a particular program or we needed a contribution to the library or whatever it might have been… [farmers have] always been there to give it to us. Probably more important than the dollars that they have contributed to the college is the support they’ve given us for our total operation and for our referenda efforts which have really allowed us to progress.”
While the first graduating class in 1969 only numbered 22 students, the fall enrollment figures showed 1,284 enrollees. This was double the 600 expected in 1968. While the variety of classes and programs have expanded greatly over time, Kishwaukee College maintains its focus on agriculture and remains connected to the local community. In 1973, DeKalb County Farm Bureau donated $25,000 to the college’s agriculture program, and more recently, the agribusiness program was reinstated and headed by former-student-turned-lead-instructor, Steve Durin.
“What Is the Future of Agriculture?”
This is the question some of our local high school students explored this spring. They interviewed a variety of DeKalb County Farmers and shared those responses in a video.
Stories from Main Street: Youth Engagement and Skill-Building
The DeKalb County History Center is a proud participant in the Museum on Main Street’s Stories: YES program. Students from DeKalb High School, Hinckley-Big Rock, and Sycamore High School, along with elementary students from Sycamore created videos connected to DeKalb County’s farmers this spring.
They researched questions, met with farmers, conducted interviews, and edited the material. The final product is featured in the Crossroads exhibit, on dekalbcountyhistory.org, and on the Stories: YES website. This is the first of many student organized video projects connected to the History Center’s exhibits.
A special thank you to the teachers and OC Creative who were willing to share their time and talents with us.
Stories: YES is designed for students to:
- Learn research and interviewing skills through host organization resources or other partner resources,
- Learn how to create a nonfiction narrative, creating a connection to local history and understanding its significance,
- Learn how to participate professionally in the community,
- Learn how to use new equipment and software to develop a digital story.
Another way to look at how local farmers are managing change is seen in the number of Master Farmers from DeKalb County. Prairie Farmer, America’s oldest farm publication, created a Master Farmer program. Since 1968, 170 farmers have been awarded this title. Twenty-three on that list are from DeKalb County. This is significantly more than any other county in Illinois. These leaders demonstrate how they incorporate change as they look to the future.
In 2017 Tracy Jones was selected as a Master Famer:
“Tracy exemplifies all that is right about modern-day agricultural producers. He is an excellent manager and producer. He maintains good records and open dialogue with key advisors, and he unselfishly gives back to his community.”
Master Farmers of DeKalb County 2017
- Eddie Arndt
- Allan Aves
- Jerry Bemis
- Web Buchholz
- Tom Fenstermaker
- Bob Gilmore, Sr.
- Gerry Hartmann
- Don Huftalin
- John Huftalin
- Bob Johnson
- LaVerne Johnson
- Tracy Jones
- Gene Lane
- Ray Larson
- Bill Lenschow
- Paul Montavon
- Ed Peterson
- Ken Rehn
- Roger Steimel
- Jim Walter
- Jamie Willrett
- Jim Willrett
North Grove School, three miles northwest of Sycamore, was built in 1878 by the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church as a parochial and Sunday school. Pupils of diverse ethnic backgrounds learned their lessons in Swedish, even several years after the DeKalb County public school system purchased the school in 1880. The Sycamore unit district acquired the school in 1949, and it continued as a school until 1952, when it was closed. The North Grove community continued to lovingly maintain the building and used it as a neighborhood social center for many years.
Northern Illinois Steam and Power Show
Farmers acknowledged the need for change, but they also appreciated looking back to the past. Hence the birth of the Northern Illinois Steam Power Show.
“Not too long after starting to visit steam shows elsewhere in the early 1950s, Dad was eager and able to buy first one then another engine of his own. All this led to the need to have more ways to ‘play’ with the engines and to share his interest with other hobbyists. So Dad and a few others in the Sycamore-DeKalb area began to organize what became the ‘Northern Illinois Steam Power Club,’ with Dad as the first president.” —John Jordan
This August will mark the 63rd “Steam and Power Show,” where crowds of people drive to the Taylor Marshall farm north of Sycamore to enjoy the treasures shared by the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club.
Another major change started in the 1980s and can be referred to as the Information Age. Technology in agriculture is not new, but recently, the pace of change has rapidly increased. While the number of farmers has decreased, farming still accounts for 88% of land use in the county. While one farmer used to feed 25 people in the United States, now that farmer now feeds 155 people worldwide due to increased efficiency and new farming technology. Meanwhile, costs for farmers continue to rise—new technology, land, planting, and harvesting are all expensive. Farmers are regularly faced with the question: Is it worth the risk to continue farming?
One way DeKalb County farm families adapted to these changes was by adding non-farm income sources to maintain their living standard. For some, farming became a part-time career out of necessity. Farmers have also looked to nontraditional crops to be competitive, like Prairie State Winery and Waterman Winery who use local sources of grapes. Whiskey Acres, a local distillery, doubles as a tourist destination who uses local crops to make whiskey and vodka. Also, Jonamac Orchard uses their apple crop to make apple wine and hard cider and has added many agri-tourism elements to their fall sales.
FFA (Formerly Future Farmers of America)
The theme of this year’s National FFA Week was “Just One.” Keeping with the theme, the DeKalb County Farm Bureau asked each DeKalb County FFA chapter to share “Just One” of their programs that may be new, unique, or traditional for their FFA.
The Hiawatha FFA hosted their 81st Grain Show and Auction. This is the longest running grain show in the state of Illinois.
Genoa-Kingston High School has an attached greenhouse that allows the FFA chapter to do year-round projects.
Over the summer the Somonauk-Leland-Sandwich FFA chapter hosts a summer Agriculture Camp for approximately 60 elementary students ranging in age from first through third grade.
The overall goal of the Hinckley-Big Rock Royal Orchard and Squashing Out Hunger program is to provide students with a hands-on learning environment that will help help them to understand how research and production occurs in horticulture/orchard production.
Next Generation Agriculture (NGA) is a program Indian Creek FFA hosts after school for 80 elementary-aged students to teach them about the agriculture industry.
One of the most popular things DeKalb FFA does in their Animal Science class is their Vet Tech unit, concluding with practicing skills on live “patients.”
Family Ag Night is one event Sycamore FFA is really proud of. The FFA works with the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce, local farmers, and the Farm Bureau to share the importance of agriculture with the community.
The University of Illinois Extension website explains:
“In 4-H, young people share, grow, and learn together from various projects, events, and activities in informal situations under the guidance of their families and other volunteer adult leaders. Members can choose projects that fit them and the places where they live. Group activities and events such as trips, camps, fairs, shows, and workshops provide additional learning experiences and opportunities.”
DeKalb County is home to fifteen different clubs, many starting in 1927 (a few even earlier). They represent:
- Creston (a Tri-county club)
While still participating in projects traditionally associated with 4-H, many club members are also involved in robotics, aviation, and coding.
DeKalb County Migrant Ministry
The DeKalb County Migrant Ministry was formed in 1964 “to minister to migrant farm laborers in DeKalb County” by addressing four main areas: health, education, economic, and spiritual.
In 1964, 14 DeKalb County farms used migrant labor, mostly from southern Texas and Mexico. These workers and their families arrived in April and worked until late September or early October. During the months of August and September, the total number of migrant people in the county (men, women, and children) approached 1,000. By 1967, as many as 1,500 people travelled to work in DeKalb County. They picked asparagus until July 1, harvested tomatoes or worked with seed corn in July to August, and then worked in canneries until the end of October.
Many workers lived in free housing provided by farmers. However, if they were not working on a farm full-time, housing cost them between $50 and $60 per month. These “housing camps” consisted of shacks on farms. Annual income for migrant workers was less than $2,500 a year, while most lived “in dire poverty on incomes averaging around $1,200 per year.”
By 1972, there was a significant change. Migrant workers decreased to about 200 – 300 people. These numbers reflect how produce farms became smaller and more automated as well as the increased number of migrant workers who settled permanently in the county.
Before the DeKalb County Migrant Ministry was established, most people were unaware of the number of the migrant workers in the county and their needs.
The Migrant Ministry’s first core program was Family Night in 1964, where 45 volunteers visited nine migrant camps. During these nights over 1,000 children played with toys, worked on crafts, read and listened to stories, and enjoyed milk and cookies.
Over the next few years, the Migrant Ministry Center expanded to provide:
- Healthcare and adult education for migrant families
- Legal and financial aid for contracts
- Assistance with tax forms and other types of legal documents
- Referral services for people new to the community
By the late 1970s, many migrants in the area dropped out of the stream of migrant workers and permanently settled in towns such as DeKalb, Sycamore, Kingston, Hinckley, Lee, and Waterman.
As the needs of migrants in DeKalb County diminished, the DeKalb County Migrant Ministry was dissolved, officially disbanding in 1981.
However, the story of new migrants continues today. Between 1970 and 1990 the Latinx* population in DeKalb County increased by 378%. From 1990 to 2000 the Latinx population grew another 150% and accounted for at least 6.5% of the county’s population. Instead of farming, new migrants found work in factories, restaurants, construction, hotels, stores, meat processing, and metal fabrication.
Adapting to the changing needs of this community, today’s Children’s Learning Center evolved from the Migrant Ministry Center. In 1968, the first DeKalb County Migrant Day Care was opened at St. Mary’s School. The six-week session, run by a volunteer staff, provided a daycare facility, enabling some migrants to work additional hours. Renamed the DeKalb County Migrant Learning Center in 1969, it served children up to four years old during the 11-week session. Each child even received a complete physical. Some migrants eventually served as Learning Center staff. In February of 1972 there was one last name change, and the Children’s Learning Center was born. In 2018, the Children’s Learning Center celebrated its 50th anniversary.
* Latinx is the accepted gender neutral term for populations from Latin American countries.