Hogs R Us
Western Illinois grows corn on the hoof
See Illinois (unpublished)
You can grows hogs on land that isn’t good enough to grown corn on, which is a big reason western Illinois, much of whose land is unfit for row crops, used to grow so many hogs. Since this was written, more and more hogs are not grown on land at all but in buildings, but "Forgottonia" also is where a lot of the state’s experienced hog farmers are, so the region also hosts a lot of pork factories known officially as “hog confinement operations.”
Some of this material also appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves.
A drive through most parts of western Illinois provides a pleasant and wholly misleading picture of Illinois agriculture. Most of the region’s farms come closer to the idealized family farm than do most farms in most other regions of Illinois. They tend to be smaller than the grain factories of the Grand Prairie, for example, and more diverse.
The landscape is older here and nature has had more time since the last glaciation to carve streams into it. The resulting ravines make fields smaller and harder to plow than the sprawling spreads where the post-glacial terrain is younger. Fruit-bearing trees do just fine, however. The commercial orchard—ubiquitous on 19th century farms—survived here longer than it did elsewhere. Adams and Pike counties were major shippers of fruit until well into the 20th century; the Pike County town of Barry, for example, once was noted for its large shipments of fine apples. Wild grapes always grew abundantly in Illinois woods, but the fruit has been cultivated in western Illinois since at least the 1850s. Wine-making in Nauvoo endures as a legacy of the Icarians, although the product is no threat to the Napa Valley.
Still, fruit growing is in decline. Other places to the west and south can grow fruit all year around, and the advent of refrigerated rail cars and trucks meant that the fresh fruit that is eaten in Illinois no longer has to be grown here. However, another crop also does well on thinly-soiled hillsides—cattle and hogs. Livestock (and the fodder needed to sustain them) remains a significant income-producer on Illinois land less favored for row-crop agriculture, including the hilly districts of western Illinois.
Until tractors rendered such animals curiosities, Galesburg was the horse and mule capital of the country, where animals by the thousands were sold in a block-long barn. In 1999, seven of the top ten counties in the production of beef cattle were located in western Illinois—Fulton, Hancock, Adams, Pike, Knox, Warren (site of an annual Prime Beef Festival, in Monmouth), and McDonough, respectively. The county herds ranged in size from 15,300 head to 8,900. The presence of so many hungry animals explains why Knox, Pike, and Warren also rank sixth, seventh, and ninth among Illinois counties in hay production.
However, it is the pig that has figured most significantly in the history of Forgottonia. When young Abe Lincoln first laid eyes on western Illinois in 1831, he did so in the company of live hogs—part of the cargo aboard the flatboat on which he floated down the Illinois bound for New Orleans.
Quincy was a busy port for shipping live hogs; some 20,000 hogs went to their doom in St. Louis by steamboat in 1847, and a few years later annual hog shipments rose to 70,000. Hogs were easier to ship in barrels than on the hoof in pre-rail days, so pork shipping points tended to become pork packing points. In the years before the Civil War a number of towns in and near the old Military Tract were pork processing centers—Rushville, Peoria, Pekin, Beardstown, Meredosia, Oquawka, and Quincy in Illinois, Keokuk and Burlington in Iowa. Typical was the Fulton County town of Vermont, which dispatched enough wagons of salt pork to the Illinois River at Browning to create several local fortunes.
Within two decades after the industry’s beginnings in the 1830s, hardly a hog was packed in the old Military Tract. The main cause was the railroads, which allowed local farmers to ship live hogs to faraway cities such as Chicago, where prices were better. Joel Wright's story was typical. In the 1830s, Canton’s Wright took pork from local farmers in exchange for merchandise. This dressed pork was then smoked, or packed in salt brine and shipped to St. Louis or Chicago by boat from the Liverpool landing; by the mid-1850s, the peak of the riverboat era, Canton’s Wrights needed a stockyards that could handle 20,000 hogs. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad came to Canton in 1862, and took away all the hogs; by 1865 there was not a single hog packed in the town.
Government agricultural statistics in 1948 showed that Henry County led the world in hog production—better reason than most for Kewanee’s representative in Springfield to introduce a resolution officially designating the town as the "Hog Capital of the World." We have the rest of the story courtesy of the Kewanee Chamber of Commerce, which understandably delights in retelling it. As the clerk of the House read the resolution, the gallery interrupted the reading with hog calls and pig squeaks, whereupon Kewanee’s Rep. Frank Preston Johnson reminded them that the then-Speaker of the Illinois House, Paul Powell, owed his “sterling qualities” to the fact that “he came from Johnson County where they weaned their babies on bacon rind, and his youthful years were nurtured by a diet of hog jowls and turnip greens.” Eddie Tunnicliff, the Northwestern running back who scored the winning touchdown in that year’s Rose Bowl, was a Kewanee lad ”strengthened by daily breakfasts of Henry County bacon.” No wonder the resolution was adopted by a unanimous vote.
Kewanee is no longer the hog capital of the world, if it ever was. But the hog still figures prominently in the culture of such towns even if it no longer is vital to their economies. Kewanee stages a Hog Capital of the World Festival every Labor Day that includes the world's largest pork chop BBQ, a four-mile run dubbed the Hog Day Stampede Run, and a “hogatta regatta”—sailboat races at a Windmont Park. Every summer Pittsfield holds the Pike County Pig Days; in addition to the usual amusements offered by all summer festivals in Illinois, there is a kiss-a-pig contest, hog calling contests, contests for the longest pigtails, and a contest for the best culinary creations based on pork.
It would be too much to say that hogs have been to western Illinois artists what sunflowers were to Van Gogh, but they have done their part for art, not least by providing subject matter for itinerant artists in the latter 1800s who were commissioned by proud breeders to do portraits of their favorite hogs. Welsh-born visual artist Fred Jones has taught at Western Illinois University since 1968. His best known work is called Pig Passages, which the artist describes as “a tongue-in-cheek, universal allegory, about a porcine attempt to save the planet.” Jones was inspired to do it on a Sunday morning when he was driving past Macomb High School. “I saw pigs escaping under the fence and went to tell the farmer about it. To my surprise, the older lady told me to get them back into the field. I tried to explain, with no avail, that I had more important things to do at school.”
Western Illinois’s contribution to the higher ranks of federal bureaucrats was a hog farmer—John R. Block, the Reagan administration Secretary of Agriculture whose family farm outside Galesburg produces some 15,000 animals a year. Block was anti-embargo, anti-crop-quotas, and (some complained) anti-consumer. Raised on a farm in Knox County and educated at Knox College, Block was the very epitome of the ambitious, smart agribusinessman who knows that the real money in farming made by the dealings in land, and government payments. Not many ag secretaries inspire poets, but this one did. Edward Dorn’s "Logical Appointments: or giving the People what they want by way of giving them what they deserve" says in part,
What do you do
if you consider land-jobbing & foreclosure
the best medicine for agriculture?
Appoint a man who owns a fair amount of Illinois
and wants the rest of it to Secretary of Agriculture.
Pork packing may have dwindled, but pork producing remained a staple of the region’s economy. Illinois for decades was a top producer of pork on the hoof, and indeed today remains among the top three U.S. states in hog production. And while hogs are raised all over Illinois, no region has more top hog producers than western Illinois. Here the number of porcine citizens easily exceeds its human ones. In 1999, the state’s first, fourth, ninth, and tenth-ranked hog producers were Henry (212,500 hogs and 51,000 humans), Knox (144,900 hogs, 55,800 humans), Adams (120,100 hogs, 68,300 humans), and Pike (118,700 hogs, 17,400 humans).
Of course Illinois farmers have always raised hogs. (Its Euro-American farmers that is; the Native Americans did not.) A hog converts feed to meat with admirable efficiency, and they didn’t need much care. Hogs could be left untended in woods, where they fed on nuts and fallen fruit, or turned loose in a corn field, where they would “hog down” ripened corn still on the stalk—in effect, a harvest and feed operation all in one.
Farmers also found hogs a convenient way to package corn for transport. Raw grain was bulky and hard to ship and in many years didn’t fetch a good price. It was easier to ship it in the form of bacon or ham, or even live hogs, which were compact and from some places could be walked to market. The oinkers were an especially useful animal to have around on an early Illinois farm.
Illinois’s first hogs were a little like its first farmers—nearly wild, and tending toward the lean and mean. They were long-legged and good jumpers, and the tusks on the males could reach six inches in length. They were known variously as pointers or hazel splitters, razor backs or scrub hogs, the last a reference to its favored environs. Left to run free, they often became such pests that local custom allowed any person killing one half of its meat for doing a public service.
Farmers in the 1830s began to introduce purebred animals to improve their herds. The Dorsey brothers of Pike County—Alexander, Bennett, and John—were typical of the more advanced stock breeders of their day. They specialized in new breeds like the Chester White from Pennsylvania, the Poland China from Ohio, and the Berkshire from England. These were animals meant for sale, and thus were bred to meet the market’s appetites in the U.S. and abroad. Fat was what the market wanted on a hog in those days, and local stock men strove to outdo each other in breeding monsters. Illinois farmers improved not just hog bloodlines but their diet, and built facilities for feeding and confinement designed for the purpose. Each innovation upped output and quality and lowered costs.
Illinois agriculture early on acquired an international dimension, and its hogs were some of its first ambassadors. Carl Sandburg recalled that one of the houses on his paper route as a boy in Galesburg belonged to the Honorable Clark E. Carr, the Republican Party boss of Knox County. Carr was physically huge, what Sandburg called “a waddly barrel of a man.” For a time he served as U.S. Minister to Denmark. Sandburg recalled how, in later years, he heard Carr explain how, while on the job in Copenhagen, he worked out some tariff schedule that let more American pork into Denmark. “When I was the Minister to Denmark the American hog obtained recognition!” he said, then, then laughed at his own punch line. ●
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