Barnyard Bulletins

Judge David Davis focus of Barn Keepers November meeting

Ag historian Don Meyer will lead a presentation at this month’s Barn Keepers meeting, at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 9. His talk will focus on Judge David Davis (seen in the photo to the left),  one of Bloomington’s most famous 19th century residents. He served as a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice. Meyer will look at Davis’ influence on farming, focusing on the years from 1870 to 1890, in particular. A friend of Abraham Lincoln, Davis is credited with steering Lincoln’s successful nomination for president. To learn more about Davis, you can also visit his mansion, which still stands in Bloomington. Meyer, a bit of a local celebrity himself, is a longtime friend of Barn Keepers. Meyer is a real estate broker, auctioneer, and agricultural history volunteer. The former farm advisor also has served as a 4-H leader and educator.  This event is free, and open to the public. Come out, and hear Meyer’s talk, at 7 p.m., Thursday, at the Evergreen FS Building 402 N Hershey Road.

2023 barn tour a hit, with look at Blue Mound, Martin townships

The 15th annual Barn Keepers of Central Illinois official Barn Tour, held Sept. 9, was another success!

The self-guided tour kicked off at Neuhaus Nursery in Colfax.  The nursery served as the official Welcome Center for the 2023 Barn Tour.

Participants received a guide book and map, with the cost of their tour. From that point, they were able to explore at their own pace.

The tour highlighted more than a dozen barns and historical sites in Blue Mound and Martin townships. To learn about earlier Barn Tours click here.

Fall speaker shares update on Heyworth area archaeology site

Did you know corn was being grown in McLean County more than 200 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus?

Dr. Logan Miller, an anthropolgoical archaeologist, from Illinois State University, shared lessons about that and some of the area’s earliest farmers — in his September talk for the Barn Keepers. 

Each spring, Miller leads an ISU field school at the Noble-Wieting archaeology site. That’s just north of Heyworth, in the spot that once was home to a 14th century Mississippian village.

The event was at Barn Keepers regular meeting spot, the Evergreen FS Building, in Bloomington.

Illinois State University students work at The Noble-Wieting archaeology site, near Heyworth. Dr. Logan Miller talked about the project to the Barn Keepers, in September meeting.

Above: Dr. Logan Miller, works at the Noble-Wieting site, near Heyworth. LEFT: A close-up of site work at the ISU field school there.

Map illustrating loss of McLean County barns gets makeover

McLean County township map illustrating the loss of barns in the latter half of the 20th century.
Torii Moré

We’ve released a new version our McLean County township map illustrating the loss of barns in the latter half of the 20th century. For this new map we have Bloomington resident Torii Moré to thank. Moré is the McLean County Museum of History’s curator of digital humanities, and was kind enough to volunteer her time to put this together for us.

How did we come up with these barn numbers? In 2002, a group of McLean County barn preservationists and enthusiasts (who would organize as Barn Keepers two years later) decided to measure the loss—over time—of wood barns in the county. To get the 1955 barn numbers, they referenced This Is McLean County, published that same year by Loree Co. The book contains aerial views of nearly all county farmsteads. Here, the volunteers carefully studied aerial photos and counted the number of barns visible in each photo. That provided township and county-wide totals. They found, in 1955, there were 4,500 barns in the county.

To get the 2002 numbers, volunteers traveled to every township to count and photograph most nearly every barn in the county. When it was all over, they had counted up roughly 1,200 barns. That figure represents a staggering decline of almost three-quarters in less than a half-century–from 4,500 in 1955 to only 1,200 in 2002. And it goes without saying that the losses continue apace. One can only imagine how many barns have disappeared since 2002.

To view a larger version of this map, visit the About Us section of our website.

Abby Reel, shares success story of building Barn III Theatre

Abby Reel, owner of the Barn III Dinner Theatre and Event Center, in Goodfield,  shared the fascinating story of how she built her business, as part of a presentation to the Barn Keepers of McLean County, May 11, 2023.

She bought what had been the longtime Conklin Barn Dinner Theatre, after it closed in 2017, due to storm damage.

In 2018, Reel took a leap of faith — and left  her position as Associate Director of Career Development at Illinois Wesleyan to pursue a passion — entrepreneurship.

Reel launched a full-scale fundraising campaign to rebuild the barn. In fact, she raised more than $80,000 to secure
her first small business loan, for rebuilding the $2.5 million-dollar structure. The new theater opened in 2019.

She made a conscious effort to keep the money in the community. With the exception of the major framing work all the contract work was done by local vendors.

As part of her talk, Reel shared heartwarming stories about how rebuilding the Barn theatre brought her life full circle: Reel’s first job  was working as a busser, then waitress, then actress at Conklin’s under the famed Chaunce Conklin and Mary Simon.

The barn now is host to many different functions beyond the dinner theatre performances. Most recently, it hosted a jazz night May 4. The owner has plans for more innovative programs, as well.

To learn more, visit the Barn III Dinner Theatre website.

Above: Barn Keepers Board Chairman and guest speaker Abby Reel. (Right) Reel shows the audience a slide about the work of building the Barn III Dinner Theatre and Event Center in Goodfield.

Giants of the Prairie: The legacy of wooden grain elevators


McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp led the Barn Keepers’ Feb. 9, 2023, presentation. 

A packed audience at the FS Evergreen Building on Hershey Road listened as Kemp shared the agricultural history of grain elevators.

He told the crowd that the steam-powered grain elevator is one of the most important, yet least understood, inventions in the history of American agriculture. 

He said the “prairie giants” helped transform the Corn Belt economy.

As part of the presentation Kemp outlined how the elevators worked; as well as their purpose on farms.

The talk also highlighted the preservation of the timber-constructed J.W. Hawes Elevator in Atlanta, IL. That beauty is pictured to the left of this article.

Kemp also serves as Barn Keepers historian.

In Memoriam: Wally Yoder

We were saddened at the notice of the death of Wally Yoder.

Wally was one of the early leaders of Barn Keepers.

He grew up on a farm near Danvers and devoted his life in many ways to agriculture in Central Illinois.

As a Farm Manager, for more than 50 years,  he helped to gather and preserve the history of barns in McLean County.

He received the Agribusiness Man of the Year Award from the McLean County Chamber of Commerce in 1998.

One of Wally’s hobbies was raising Border Collies that he trained as herding dogs.

At our barn tour in Funks Township. he gave demonstrations of how his dogs were trained to herd sheep.

He held many leadership positions throughout the County and State. He left many fond memories for those of us who knew him.

 A celebration of life service was held for Wally in early February. You can read more about his life, here in his obituary.

-Ron Ropp, Barn Keepers President

An earthwork art installation created by Ruth K. Burke is shown above (CREDIT: Burke was one of the Barn Keepers featured 2022 speakers.

Art professor, drover shares history of ox in Mclean County

An interdisciplinary artist, who teaches at Illinois State University while also representing ox drovers in the Midwest, led a winter Barn Keepers presentation.

Ruth K. Burke straddles the practice of contemporary art and the field of animal-human studies. In her Nov. 10 talk at the Evergreen FS Building, in Bloomington, she shared details about her artistic pursuits – in particular how she creates installations, working with the draft animals in planting earthworks.

Burke outlined the history of oxen in McLean County. But first she recognized the indigenous peoples who called this area home before white settlers, as well as the African diaspora who worked the land during the nation’s transformation.

The assistant professor of video in ISU’s Wonsook Kim School of Art, also is a Midwest Ox Drovers Association board member, as well as a teamster, farm laborer, equestrian and cultural worker.

An ox is any bovine trained to work, but mainly castrated males, she said. An ox drover uses three key tools: Voice commands and body positioning, combined with the drover using a stick, to guide the animals.

Some examples of voice commands are “Get up” (move forward), “Haw” (left), “Gee” (right), and “Whoa” (stop).

Back in the early 1800s, oxen began being imported to America, said Burke. One of McLean County’s first white settlers, Gardner Randolph, arrived in 1822 in a wagon that people can fairly assume was pulled by oxen, she said.

Although horses could cover about 20 miles per day – more ground than the 15 miles per day oxen customarily handled – the latter animals were more resilient: Oxen had fewer nutritional requirements, and were stronger. These animals were better suited to the challenges of the prairies, she said. That included sod busting, helping drain wetlands, and facing snakes.

In the 1880s, as McLean County settlers dug ditches to lay clay tiles for draining the prairie, it was oxen who led the way. Burke described the animals as coworkers who stayed alongside humans doing farm work for more than a century. By the 1930s, tractors began to surpass animal power on most farms.

Burke has a special place for her oxen team, or her boys, as she calls them. There’s something magical about working close to the soil, and they help her in that endeavor, she said.

In one of her most recent art projects, Domestic Rewilding (shown in image above), she worked with draft animals and created a 200-foot native plant garden. The site’s maintenance is supported by pollinator insects. The work was commissioned by the 4Ground: Midwest Land Art Biennial in Steuben, Wis.

Other such earthworks have been featured from Ohio to Texas, and even in Istanbul, Turkey.

This summer, she’ll share this type of art here in McLean County. In the June 29 event, Burke and her oxen boys will restore native prairie flowers to a patch at the ISU Horticulture Center, on West Raab Road, across from Heartland Community College.

To learn more about the artist’s work, visit the website

Ag historian Meyer regales crowd with farming heritage stories

Central Illinois agriculture historian, Don Meyer, shared stories about farming heritage, and the role of the Illinois Farm Bureau in agriculture history as part of a Sept. 8 presentation to Barn Keepers of Central Illinois.

The event, at 402 N. Hershey Road, Bloomington, drew more than 30 people, according to Jack Miller, Barn Keepers board president.

“Don’s stories were very captivating, and brought back personal memories of those bygone times to many in the audience,” said Miller.

Meyer, a Lexington-based farm broker and auctioneer is co-curator of the ‘Farming’ Gallery at the McLean County History Museum in downtown Bloomington.

Illinois Farm Bureau logo

He retired in 2010 as University of Illinois Extension director, where he worked nearly 30 years.

A long-time Illinois State University faculty member, Meyer led nearly a dozen courses in ISU’s agriculture and family consumer sciences departments.

He also taught agriculture studies at Lexington High School where he was Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor.

A man of many hats, he’s been a Lexington City Council alderman,  volunteer firefighter, pilot and 4-H leader. 

Ag historian Don Meyer speaks, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, at 402 N. Hershey Road, Bloomington. Meyer discussed farming heritage and the role of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Barn Keepers volunteers share group’s mission, at county fair

The Barn Keepers had a table, in August, at the 2022 McLean County Fair.

Another McLean County Fair is now in the books! 

This year, we made a special effort to reach out McLean County youth — with the hope of sharing our passion for the rapidly disappearing barns in our area, and the need to preserve their stories for future generations.

Barn Keepers volunteers who manned our table at the fair include: Ron Ropp and Jack and Sheila Miller, Jim Hanlin, Allene Gregory, Susie Sears, Jean Cooper, Jon Stephens and Gerry Poppe.

We took time at the fair to spread the
word about our Centennial Barns of McLean County project; and we shared a lot of barn memories with the folks who stopped by our table.

We met fair attendees who share our passion for agricultural heritage, including oxen handler Ruth Burke. The lllinois State University faculty member is the featured speaker at our Nov. 10 meeting.

‘Corn-Farm Boy’ 1950s kids’ classic focus of Barn Keepers talk

Barn Keepers’ Historian Bill Kemp led an illustrated program on Corn-Farm Boy, a 1954 work of children’s literature written by celebrated author Lois Lenski. 

llinois State University’s Special Collections at Milner Library holds Lenski’s research papers relating to the title. Kemp’s presentation made use of that treasure trove—photographs, letters, notes, original illustrations, and newspaper clips.

Corn Farm Boy, aimed at the  middle-school audience (ages 8 to 12), is a work of fiction.

The story offers a strikingly detailed and realistic look at farming in the decade after World War II—a time when the Corn Belt was undergoing rapid change due to mechanization, school consolidation, and other forces.  

It’s part of nearly 20 titles making up Lenski’s regional series. Besides Corn-Farm Boy, the series also includes the 1945 Newberry Award-winning Strawberry Girl. In all, Ohio-born Lenski published nearly 100 children’s and young adult titles.

This highly original and interesting program featured Kemp sharing a look at the post World War II era in rural America.

The Barn Keepers speakers’ program is free and open to the public. This event was May 12 at at Evergreen FS Building, 402 N. Hershey Road in Bloomington. 

Lois Lenski’s book Corn-Farm Boy is the topic of Barn Keepers May talk.

Coming Soon: Book to showcase this area’s centennial barns

Illinois Centennial Barn logo

The Barn Keepers organization is excited to announce the upcoming publication of a full-color book celebrating many of the county’s 100-plus year-old barns.

The project is getting some attention — Bloomington newspaper, The Pantagraph recently interviewed Barn Keepers historian Bill Kemp, and published an article about our search for the historical structures.

This book project will complement the Barn Keepers ongoing Centennial Barn program, which in the past several years has officially recognized nearly 50 barns in the McLean County area.

Do you know anyone with a centennial barn? How cool would it be to showcase such a barn in this professionally designed book celebrating Central Illinois farm heritage?

For more information, contact Barn Keeper board members Bill Kemp at or Ron Ropp at

Historic barn calendar featuring timeless photos goes digital

Photo courtesy of Ken Kashian, of Illinois Farm Bureau

Take a trip back in time with Barn Keepers — to revisit our origins as the McLean County Barn Group.In 2004, The Barn Group published the “Pride of McLean County:” Barn Calendar.

While it may be 18 years old, the wonderful photos are, indeed, timeless. The  calendar showcases historical Corn Belt barns, and additional information about their architecture. The cover photo, seen here, is a 1925 Chenoa Township barn, featuring glazed bricks, and roof dormers.

Jim Williams,  the late Barn Keepers board member (see remembrance below) led this project. He was joined by several others on the calendar committee including Jean Cooper, Erma and Harlan Kahle,  Carolyn Loeb, Carmen Schnitker, and Wally Yoder.

Download the calendar by clicking on this link:

(NOTE: Download times vary, based on Internet bandwidth.)

In Memoriam: Jim Williams

Barn Keepers board member Jim Williams passed away Sept. 30, 2021, at the age of 87. Jim was well-known, and well-liked by all who knew him. He was a dear friend and colleague of Barn Keepers, and he will be missed.

Born and raised on a farm in the southern Illinois community of Galatia, Jim settled in Bloomington — spending more than 40 years at Country Financial, with much of that time devoted to automobile, fire, and agriculture safety.

He helped establish the International Society for Agriculture Safety and Health (ISASH), and he worked with the University of Illinois Extension on AgrAbility, a project that, among other things, helps farmers with disabilities be able to continue to farm.

Long associated with Barn Keepers, Jim’s ties go all the way back to our beginnings. That was nearly 20 years ago, when he served on the steering committee of the McLean County Barn Group, this organization’s original name. In addition, he served as chairperson of the Barn Group’s 2004 calendar committee.

With his innumerable connections, Jim was expert in securing advertisers for our annual Barn Tour, helping underwrite the cost of printing the booklets, and staging the event.

“He had a special gift for fund raising, and was a strong voice for barn-related issues and programs,” reflected Barn Keepers board member Ron Ropp.

Jim’s wife of 62 years, Madge Reid Williams, survives. Their children, daughter Lori Williams and son Brad Williams, also survive. Memorials can be made to ISASH, AgrAbility, or Eastview Christian Church.

Jim Williams
The Barn Keepers September 9 public meeting at the FS Evergreen Building in Bloomington was a great success! We were thrilled with the nice turnout for our illustrated talk on the Centennial Barn book project. Speakers included board members Ron Ropp and Bill Kemp, and Illinois State University intern Emma Pfeiffer, an undergraduate history major who is assisting Barn Keepers with the book project.
Barn Keepers intern Emma Pffeifer presents a program about the upcoming Centennial Barn book, as board member Ron Ropp looks on.

Illustrated program focused on Centennial Barn book a big hit

The Barn Keepers September 9 public meeting at the FS Evergreen Building in Bloomington was a great success! We were thrilled with the nice turnout for our illustrated talk on the Centennial Barn book project.

Speakers included board members Ron Ropp and Bill Kemp, and Illinois State University intern Emma Pfeiffer, an undergraduate history major who is assisting Barn Keepers with the book project. 

Dave Ashbrook memorial gift supports preserving Davis barn

Following the August 9, 2020, passing of our friend Dave Ashbrook, a substantial memorial gift to Barn Keepers was made in his name. After consulting with family members, it was agreed the Dave Ashbrook Memorial gift will go to the David Davis Mansion Foundation of Bloomington.

The State Historic Site grounds include a circa 1856 stable/barn, and the Ashbrook gift will go to the upkeep and preservation of this historic barn. The Bloomington Preservation Commission recognized the Davis Mansion Foundation’s efforts to preserve this barn with a 2020 Heritage Award.

David Ashbrook
Dave Ashbrook memorial donation will support the barn preservation at David Davis Mansion in Bloomington.

David Davis Historic Site barn, Aug. 10, 2021

Need assistance restoring a barn? This group offers ideas

Here at Barn Keepers, we get asked this vital question all the time.

Unfortunately, we’re a small not-for-profit that emphasizes barn education in McLean County. We simply do not have the technical or financical resources to support a grant program or similar efforts.

And there is precious little assistance when it comes to the government — be it federal, state or local levels. A federal tax credit is available for owners of barns which are on the National Register of Historic Places, but few barns are eligible for such designation. 

That said, there is some help out there. The National Barn Alliance has some suggestions as to what to do and where to go. To visit that website, click here.  

  • Become a member today!
  • Find us on Facebook! And while you’re there, be sure to like our page, where Board President Jack Miller posts news about Barn Keepers events, and other items of interest.