Some Books About Illinois Farming
Harvesting corn and myth from the prairie
See Illinois (unpublished)
This sampling is compiled from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. Farming dominates the landscape, the politics, and the social life of Downstate Illinois, even if it no longer dominates the economy. Some of the state's biggest companies, it grandest country squires, and its most impressive achievements in science and technology are rooted in its rich soils.
Any book about Illinois’s very early years will necessarily be about farmers and farming. Two such works are Solon J. Buck’s Illinois in 1818, republished by the University of Illinois Press in 1967, and James E. Davis’s Frontier Illinois (Indiana University Press, 2000). Myrna M. Killey goes back even farther with Illinois' [sic] Ice Age Legacy, a brief introduction put out by the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1998 and again in 2007; it deserves wider circulation.
The Funk family looms large in McLean County history. The founder of the clan, Isaac Funk, is recalled in Funk of Funk's Grove: Farmer, Legislator, and Cattle King of the Old Northwest, 1797-1865 by Helen M. Cavanagh (Pantagraph Printing Co., 1952).
Central Illinois’s most famous—and infamous—19th century land baron was the subject of Landlord William Scully by Homer E. Socolofsky (The Regents Press of Kansas, 1979). Another essential work on large-scale agriculture in central Illinois is Paul W. Gates’s Landlords and Tenants on the Prairie Frontier: Studies in American Land Policy (Cornell University Press, 1973), three of whose articles pertain to Illinois.
Allen G. Bogue’s From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century (the 1994 Iowa State University edition is a reprint of 1963 University of Chicago Press original) is justly respected as an essential work on its subject. Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture by John C. Hudson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) persuasively explains how corn cultivation came to dominate mid-Illinois farming.
The cattle business in particular is examined in James W. Whitaker’s Feedlot Empire: Beef Cattle Feeding in Illinois and Iowa, 1840–1900 (Iowa State University Press, 1975). John G. Clark explained The Grain Trade in the Old Northwest (University of Illinois Press, 1966) in early Illinois and neighboring states.
Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (W. W. Norton, 1991) is as much a history of agriculture in Illinois as a history of Chicago, since the city and its regional hinterland grew rich together. I reviewed Cronon's book here.
The modern era
In Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin' Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America (University of Illinois Press, 1987), Robert C. Williams explains one major development that saw the transformation of farming into agri-industry; I reviewed the book here.
Corn remade the Illinois countryside in every way. Helen M. Cavanagh contributed Seed, Soil and Science: The Story of Eugene D. Funk (Lakeside Press, 1959), an account of the life and work of the key figure in the Funk Brothers Seed Company. A better book is The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940 (Cornell University Press, 1990). The book contains much about work in the field at the University of Illinois and by leading seed companies such as Funk Brothers Seed. One specialist in that field praised it, saying “it will endure as a standard work.”
A newer book is Midwest Maize by Cynthia Clampitt (University of Illinois Press, 2015). I described the book here as not a history but a compendium of facts and anecdotes, snippets of history and even some recipes. While informative and entertaining, it omits too much.
John Thompson’s study, Wetlands Drainage, River Modification, and Sectoral Conflict in the Lower Illinois Valley, 1890–1930 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002) has an unappetizing title, but it recounts an essential story not previously treated by scholars, namely how the drainage of wetlands along the lower Illinois River for farming changed land and water relationships, destroyed a major riverine fishing industry, and severely damaged renowned waterfowl hunting grounds.
In Life in Prairie Land, Eliza Farnham told how she came west to Illinois in the spring of 1836 from upstate New York, eventually to wed and begin a family in the Tazewell County village of Tremont. Earnest and insistent, Farnham also could be quite droll, which saves the book from the tediousness of the sermon; the absence of fences around the houses in her new home, she noted, “presented temptations which wrought lamentable corruption in the morals of the swine.” The book was reprinted with an introduction by John Hallwas by the University of Illinois Press in 2003.
Rural life is illuminated by James F. Evans’ “Prairie Farmer” and WLS: The Burridge D. Butler Years (University of Illinois Press. 1969). Butler was the long-time editor and Publisher of Prairie Farmer and president of the radio station which specialized in farm service programming beginning in 1928; the latter’s broadcasts from Chicago of the Saturday Night Barn Dance, farm market reports, and the Little Brown Church of the Air entertained, and the newspaper educated about cooperative marketing, New Deal farm programs, and other manifestations of modern agriculture.
The essential role played by paid farm laborers is explained by David E. Schob in Hired Hands and Plowboys: Farm Labor in the Midwest, 1815–60 (University of Illinois Press, 1975).
Drought and insect pests were not a mid-Illinois farmer’s only problems. Farmers’ attempt to organize to rid themselves of bankers and railroad men and grain merchant is recounted in The Agrarian Movement in Illinois 1880–1896 by Roy V. Scott (University of Illinois Press, 1962).
The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890–1990 by anthropologist Jane Adams (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) offers seven case studies meant to illustrate how farming and farm life has changed over the past century, with special attention paid to the role of women. Adams also edited All Anybody Ever Wanted of Me Was to Work: The Memoirs of Edith Bradley Rendleman (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996). Most memoirs of Illinois farm life are served like gravy on biscuits, with goops of nostalgia; Rendlemen's unblinking reminiscences are palate-cleansing in their honesty.
Alan Guebert's The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey (University of Illinois Press, 2015) is a collection of columns of reminiscences of his growing up on an Illinois farm. In my review here I remarked, "Nothing Guebert writes makes me any less certain that in most ways a farm is the best place to grow up . . . . [F]inishing it left me with an appetite to visit his website to read what he has to say on agricultural policy. No higher compliment can be paid a writer."
We have straight histories of barbed wire—Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum’s The Wire that Fenced the West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965) is a good one—cultural histories of barbed wire, political histories of barbed wire, even reflections on barbed wire by French intellectuals. Most such histories of barbed wire scant its invention in favor of its effects on agriculture, but the good ones at least summarize the role played in it by DeKalb residents such as Joseph Glidden, who is yet to be the subject of a proper biography.
The John Deere Company has inspired many a book, most of them photo books of products appealing to the collector and the buff. Useful to the general reader is The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere by Neil Dahlstrom and Jeremy Dahlstrom (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).
The story of the local soil improvement association that inspired the American Farm Bureau movement, is told in Native Soil: A History of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau by Eric W. Mogren (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).
For books about some of Illinois's pioneering food processing firms, see Some Books About Illinois Business. ●