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Reflections: Barns are lasting reminders of our rich farming heritage

A barn on Harvey Road near Oswego built by Lou C. Young in 1911 for Charles Sorg.
A barn on Harvey Road near Oswego built by Lou C. Young in 1911 for Charles Sorg.

The majority of the Fox Valley’s earliest settlers were farmers who moved to the Illinois prairies to find better, cheaper land.

The earliest pioneers moved west from slave states such as Virginia and the Carolinas into Kentucky and Tennessee before crossing the Ohio and Mississippi rivers into southern Illinois and moving farther north.

But by the early 1830s, the remarkable Erie Canal had opened, creating a waterborne highway for farmers and their families who wanted to move west. Sailing west on the Great Lakes, prospective settlers could then easily travel south, deep into the Midwest’s prairies on Lake Michigan, where farmers found good, inexpensive land to till.

Even so, for years after the U.S. government provided expertise and funding to create a port at Chicago in the mid-1830s, the bulk of the Fox Valley’s immigrants favored traveling overland to their new homes. The overland routes to Illinois varied, depending on place of origin and date of travel. As noted above, Southerners moved slowly west before turning north across the Ohio and Mississippi to begin populating Illinois. Others, primarily from the old Middle Colonies, traveled overland to Pittsburgh and then either by land or by water on the Ohio River to an Illinois port such as Shawneetown, before traveling across the prairies to their new homes. Later groups hugged the southern shores of the Great Lakes from New York to Detroit and then took the U.S. Army road west to Chicago before spreading out to settle. Still others crossed into Canada at Niagara and traveled along the northern shores of the Great Lakes before crossing back into the U.S. at Detroit and thence on to Chicago.

Most of these early pioneers moved in groups, stopping for a few years here and a few years there with friends and family groups before moving on west. Known as chain migration, this method was favored throughout the 1800s, well after the frontier had moved west of Illinois.

Those early farmers brought their traditions and technology along with them, transplanting to the Illinois prairies familiar styles of architecture and farming culture and tools.

After they arrived, one of the first buildings a pioneer family constructed was a good, weather-tight, substantial barn. Sometimes, barns went up even before a farmer’s house because a barn was absolutely vital to the farming operations of that era. Barns housed hay crops necessary for animal feed and bedding during the winter months. They were also the places where livestock was housed, fed, and cared for. Barns were also where the economically vital small grain crops of oats, wheat, rye and barley were threshed. In fact, those earliest barns had special wooden threshing floors where grain was removed from the stalks by beating it with flails or having oxen or horses walk over it. The grain was later winnowed to remove chaff from the kernels while the straw was stored in the haymow for use as animal bedding and food.

The United States of the 1820s may have been one nation, but it was not the unified nation we know today. In fact, few Americans knew much about other areas of the country. When John Tillson traveled to his new home on the Illinois frontier with his bride, Christina, in 1822, the couple decided to travel overland in a specially built carriage from their home near Boston, Massachusetts. Their route took them through Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana before they reached the Prairie State.

In Christina’s account of their trip, she said she was most surprised at what the small traveling group found in Pennsylvania. She noted that in her home area of New England with its rocky, thin soil, the only rich farmers were those who had made their money in other pursuits, such as manufacturing or shipping. There were no – or at least very few – rich farmers in Massachusetts. So when they passed through the lush Pennsylvania countryside with its ample barns, they were nonplussed.

“It seemed strange to see the big Dutch barns, which in the distance we continually mistook for churches,” she noted late in her life.

Those “Dutch” barns were quickly transplanted to the Illinois countryside. Actually developed by Pennsylvania Germans (whose name for themselves, Deutsch, was transliterated as Dutch), big barns quickly became the economic rule in Illinois. Less often made of stone like so many of their Keystone State cousins, more often made of wood with timber frames, the big barns of the Illinois countryside were integral parts of the machines that comprised American farms of the era.

Some farmers favored rounded gambrel roofs, others peaked gable roofs, still others the hip roofs familiar to Pennsylvania farmers. A few stone barns were built on the Illinois prairie, of course. The remaining structure of the Townsend-Davis farm on Grove Road (the rest of the buildings were demolished to make way for a subdivision) is native limestone with traditional Pennsylvania Dutch slit ventilating windows. Sometimes mistaken for rifle ports or loopholes, slit ventilators are ancient devices cleverly designed to enhance ventilation and allow in some light, but which can still be easily closed up to keep out cold winter weather.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of barn construction in northern Illinois.

Unfortunately, all those wonderful barns, some dating to the 1840s, became obsolete for farming purposes in the 1960s as the diversified farming of previous generations disappeared. Formerly, farmers grew a variety of grain crops and also raised livestock, but starting in the 1960s farmers began specializing in either grain or livestock. Most chose grain farming and the barns their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents built with so much forethought became obsolete.

In fact, the barns we are still lucky enough to enjoy today are for the most part, antiques. Some are maintained, sometimes lovingly, by their owners as reminders of times past, not as cogs in the modern agricultural machine, while others are allowed to fall into disrepair and eventual ruin. But the ones that remain are a visible link to the region’s farming past.

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