Reflections: Harvesting and marketing grain still a major local effort – Shaw Local

2022-08-26 08:28:26 By : Mr. Hong Fan

I was doing research on the area’s interurban trolley system some time ago and that led me to thinking about farmers, their crops and getting those crops to market.

That, in turn, led me to muse about a few other aspects of grain farming around these parts, especially since we’re now getting into the time of year when the first grain harvests start.

The farmer-settlers who started arriving here along the banks of the Fox River in the early 1830s definitely were removed – although not very far – from the old frontier subsistence farmers we see in our mind’s’ eye when we hear about those hardy families who moved west of the Appalachians during the after the Revolutionary War.

The families who settled in northern Illinois were not, mostly, those who’d arrived from the south via Kentucky and Tennessee. Rather, most of our local pioneer farmers came directly west from their eastern homes, although some did pause and settle midway between Illinois and the East Coast for a few years.

They were also not, for the most part, the Daniel Boone type of frontiersmen who carved hardscrabble farms out of the dense forests of the southeast and even southern Illinois. Rather, they were largely established, often moderately well-off, farmers who were interested in community building, planting cash crops and selling the livestock they raised.

It wasn’t long after the first arrivals got here and staked their claims that Chicago began providing a market for both grain and livestock. It took a couple of years before U.S. Army engineers were able to build a permanent channel through the sandbar blocking the mouth of the Chicago River. Once they did, ships finally had a safe harbor at the foot of Lake Michigan. As a result, the city’s population and economy literally exploded. In 1833, only four ships called at Chicago. In 1835, a year after the channel was completed, 250 ships called at Chicago and a year after that 456 vessels arrived.

So the market was there. The problem was getting grain and livestock there from Chicago’s hinterland. Livestock could walk to market, but grain had to be hauled overland. Completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 meant Fox Valley farmers could haul their grain east to the canal, a shorter distance than the cross-prairie route to Chicago. The extension of the rail line west of the Fox River in 1853 through northern Kendall County helped even more, as did building the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road, which followed the course of the Fox River through the county, in 1870.

At the same time, grain and livestock farming was booming. New strains of grain and scientific farming methods brought to the area by English and Scot immigrants increased yields. The general lack of farm labor in the region also encouraged increased use of mechanization.

The first serious local effort at manufacturing farm equipment was undertaken by Daniel Townsend. His father, Isaac Townsend, and friend Charles Davis arrived from New York state in 1835 and eventually owned several thousand acres of Kendall County land in modern NaAuSay and Oswego townships. In 1843, Daniel Townsend began a lumber mill and farm machinery manufacturing operation in NaAuSay’s AuSable Grove on the old Waish-Kee-Shaw Reserve. Starting about 1847, Townsend manufactured McCormick Reapers under license at his factory. The factory’s relative isolation, however, worked against Townsend’s plans to establish a manufacturing center out in the AuSable timber and it only operated for a few years.

Other county residents quickly took up the task of providing machinery for local farmers. Nelson Messenger began manufacturing his Messenger Gopher corn cultivators, first in Newark and later in Millbrook, in 1860. Edward Budd took over the operation and in the early 1870s added riding plows to the product line.

In 1863, C. W. Marsh and George Steward began manufacturing the harvesters in Plano for which the city became famous for. The Harvester Works there manufactured thousands of the machines for the next several decades before operations moved elsewhere.

Those machines were all designed to harvest the “small grains” – oats, wheat, barley, and rye. Early on, wheat was a fairly major cash crop, but it soon became evident that northern Illinois’ climate, with its humid summers, isn’t really wheat-friendly. While farmers tried to grow it, however, the county produced thousands of bushels. After harvesting – which was labor-intensive even with the early harvesters – the grain was hauled to local gristmills where it was ground into flour. Farmers got credit for the wheat they delivered and were then allotted a percentage of their crop in flour and bran as needed through the balance of the year.

The sale of other grains was handled the same, except for oats, most of which was used on the farm as fuel for the horses that provided power for all the other machinery. Corn was harvested on the cob, dried in each farm’s corn crib and then either fed to livestock on the cob or shelled by mechanical shellers in the spring following the harvest.

Gradually, however, horsepower was replaced first by steam and then internal combustion engines. And that led to a number of other changes driven by things off the farm. One of those was the invention of the commercial grain elevator that allowed the economical marketing of grain. Elevators popped up in every town along every rail line. Another was the interurban trolley, mentioned above. When the Fox & Illinois Midland interurban line was extended south from Yorkville to Morris, grain elevators were built along it by farmer cooperatives.

Then trolley lines and even the railroads were superseded by concrete highways and trucks that could haul grain directly from the farm to terminals on the Illinois River. That, in turn, led to farmers building their own on-farm steel storage bins so they could hold their grain for the best market price. Amazingly enough, nowadays, a single farmer sometimes has twice the total grain storage as all the county’s old grain elevators combined.

While the grain harvest is still is a major entry on farmers’ calendars, how it’s conducted and what happens afterward have undergone seismic changes.

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Copyright © 2022 Shaw Local News Network