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Agriculture and the canal

Any discussion of agriculture in Illinois must begin with the prairies. Contrary to some reports, which state that 2/3 of Illinois once contained prairies, other researchers have used a figure of 50% or less. Clearly, pre-settlement northeastern Illinois contained far more than prairie. All of the river valleys were fringed by forests, and wooded areas (prairie groves) were common. Wood was perhaps the most important commodity, essential for building houses, heating, and cooking. In fact, prairie lands were considered worthless by some due to the lack of timber.

 

The first wave of Europeans to settle in Illinois, beginning around 1800, were frustrated in their attempts to grow crops. The plows that they brought with them from the east could not break through the deep roots of the prairie plants. Around 1837 a Will County farmer named John Lane invented a new steel plow from old saw blades, and within years the plow became the new symbol of a prairie transformed. Illinois’ rich prairie soil now became some of the world’s most productive farmland.

 

However, farmers still faced a major impediment: a lack of a reliable means of transporting crops to market. Before the canal, the only way to move goods was by horse or mule power. Chicago had emerged as a major settlement in the late 1830s, but it was many miles distant from the richest farmland. Thus, farmers grew only enough to meet local needs. In 1848 the canal created a new transportation corridor that linked the rural districts of LaSalle, Grundy, and Will counties with the increasingly urban enclave of Chicago. Farmers now had an incentive to plant more acreage, giving agriculture a major impetus.

 

The opening of the canal in 1848 had a profound impact on agriculture in northeastern Illinois. According to Sauer (1918, pp. 72-3) the prairie soil of northeastern Illinois grew corn more readily than any other crop. “Previous to the building of the canal, however, its bulk had made it unprofitable except for home consumption, and wheat, being of less bulk relative to its value, was the chief cash crop. The canal, by reducing the cost of shipping, made corn the most profitable crop of the prairie. As a result the production of corn increased tremendously, whereas the growing of what was almost abandoned.” Corn also had the added advantage of being used as livestock feed. The canal propelled corn to its pre-eminent status as the major cash crop of northeastern Illinois, a position it has held ever since. Thus, the pattern established by the canal continues to hold true today, over 150 years later.

 

Large-scale agriculture also led to the destruction of Native American burial mounds. Fortunately, two of these have been preserved at the Briscoe Burial Mounds near Channahon. Agriculture has also been a threat to other archaeological sites, most notably the Zimmerman Site near Utica, opposite of Starved Rock. Also known as the Grand Village of the Illinois, the town once was home to as many as 10,000 Native Americans. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in Illinois, yet it was threatened with development until the State of Illinois purchased the land in 1991.

 

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, individual farmsteads steadily grew in size, as did productivity. Total acreage devoted to farming decreased dramatically, however, especially in Cook and Will counties. A great deal of research has been done on the changes in agriculture in Will County (Will County Rural Historic Structural Survey, 2003). This report notes that a significant portion of Will County agricultural land was obtained by the U. S. Army in 1940, land that became the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Today of course, this same land is being reclaimed as a natural area by the federal government and local partners. The accelerating pace of farmland being converted to other uses is illustrated by the fact that between 1964 and 1992 the number of farms in Will County declined from over 1,800 to barely 1,000. Most of this decline is due to the increasing suburbanization of the United States, as urban areas around big cities continue to spread and sprawl at an uncontrolled rate. The tension between these two very different types of land usage is illustrated by an incident that occurred in the late 1980’s, when a Will County farmer was arrested after residents of a nearby subdivision complained to police that he was plowing his fields at night.

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