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.
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.
-Ron Ropp, Barn Keepers President
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 ruthkburke.com
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.
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.
Barn Keepers volunteers share group's mission, at 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.
Coming Soon: Book to showcase this area's centennial barns
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 BKemp@mchistory.org or Ron Ropp at firstname.lastname@example.org
Historic barn calendar featuring timeless photos goes digital
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.
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.
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.