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See Illinois (unpublished)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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.