Monthly Archives: November 2015

Railway Museum in Union, Illinois

In Midwest Maize, I go into some detail about the impact of trains on the U.S. as a whole and the Midwest in particular. In the mid-1800s, trains changed everything. Suddenly, people could travel and goods could be moved faster and farther than ever before. For those who are fans of trains and interested in their history, the Illinois Railway Museum—the largest railway museum in the United States—is a joy and delight. Stations, signals, train cars, engines (including some you’ve seen in movies), platforms, streetcars, and miles of track give the visitor access to the full history of trains. Unlike many museums, however, this is purely a labor of love. Here are a few images, to hint at what lies in store for anyone who makes the trip to this remarkable museum. (And if you do want to visit, here’s their website URL: http://www.irm.org/)

The Welcome Sign offers important info about the museum.

The Welcome Sign offers important info about the museum.

Take a ride in the streetcar before exploring the trains.

Take a ride in the streetcar before exploring the trains.

Travel was transformed when George Pullman added the dining car -- and kitchen -- in 1868.

Travel was transformed when George Pullman added the dining car — and kitchen — in 1868.

Trains from every period of train history can be seen.

Trains from every period of train history can be seen.

 

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Filed under History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

November on the Farm

As grass dies in the fields, farm animals become increasingly reliant on food provided by farmers. Of course, that’s looking at larger farm operations. Throughout history and around the world, for those who live in colder climates, the two most common solutions were bring the animals into the house with the family, to stay warm, or slaughter animals as winter approaches, so you don’t have to worry about feeding them.

In places where resources do not permit the gathering in of fodder for livestock, animals die in harsh winters. This was true when North America was first being settled (because the 1600s were still part of the Little Ice Age), and it is true today in countries that rely entirely on grazing their animals. When I was traveling in Mongolia, I learned that during a particularly harsh winter (known as a zud), the domesticated animals die of starvation by the thousands and even millions, as they can’t get through the ice and snow to any remnants of grass. Of course, this means people die of starvation, too. So having something to feed animals when pastures are not available is vital to survival.

In this video, the Peterson Farm Brothers talk about feeding their cattle. One of the things they use is distillers grains. In making both whiskey and biofuel, only the starch in the corn is used, and all the protein and fat is left behind. It’s an ideal way to boost the protein content of animal feed—and also keeps it from being dumped into landfill. Just one more example of how efficient most modern operations are.

Hope you enjoy “Life of a Farmer” for November.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Thoughts, Video

Peoria’s Past

Peoria surprised me. It was larger and more handsome than I’d expected. One of the earliest European settlements in Illinois, the city was named for the Peoria Indians.

Peoria hugs the Illinois River—which, as mentioned in the last post, was a key part of the “circuit” that connected Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.

One chilly, February day, I was in Peoria with a friend to visit the Riverfront Museum—there was a Chihuly exhibit she wanted to see. But, though I enjoyed the Chihuly,  I was there primarily because Peoria was once a huge part of the corn story. This city was once the biggest consumer of corn in the world. They had more than one use for corn, but the vast majority of it went to “feed” the distilleries that lined the river in old Peoria. When I tell people that Peoria was once the “Whiskey Capital of the World,” they find it hard to believe. But here, at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, were displays testifying to this one-time legendary aspect of this Illinois town. Things have changed – but it’s still fun to know how much things have changed.

Peoria Riverfront Museum

Peoria Riverfront Museum

Whiskey Bottles and map of Distillers Row

Whiskey Bottles and map of Distillery Row

The Peoria riverfront has changed.

The Peoria riverfront has changed.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Lockport, Illinois

The first transportation routes into the Midwest, aside from footpaths through forests, were lakes and rivers. Trains and roads would eventually replace reliance on natural waterways, but before that would happen, people created alternative waterways. The Eerie Canal, completed in 1825, was an instant success—enough so that it encouraged a rush to build canals elsewhere in the U.S. By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 4,000 miles of canals.

In the Midwest, the objective was to get from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi—because canals connected waterways, rather than replacing them. That would be accomplished by the Illinois and Michigan, or I&M, Canal. The references to Illinois and Michigan were to the key bodies of water in the region, Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The Illinois River fed into the Mississippi, and by connecting the river with the lake, the ninety-six mile long canal created dramatically improved shipping. It also created opportunities along the route of the canal.

Lockport, IL, was established in 1837 as headquarters for construction and administration of the canal. Then as now, the region’s focus was on agriculture. The canal not only made travel easier for settlers headed to the region, it also made it easier for farmers to ship their crops. Tons of corn, corn whiskey, and corn-fed pigs were carried along the canal. Today, the town of Lockport is home to the I&M Canal Museum, Will County Historical Society, and several handsome buildings that date to the heyday of canal transportation. The canal itself is somewhat diminished, and it is hard to imagine its importance from looking at the picturesque remains of this once vital transportation route. But it was of huge importance in the 1800s.

I&M Canal Leading into Lockport

I&M Canal Leading into Lockport

The canal in the heart of Lockport

The canal in the heart of Lockport

The Gaylord Building, on the right, was built in 1838, though it is named for the local merchant who bought it in 1878. It was part of the large warehouse complex that stored construction materials for building the canal. Today, it houses exhibits on the history of the canal. The part of the warehouse complex on the left was repurposed as well, and now houses the excellent Public Landing Restaurant.

Historic Gaylord Building and Public Landing Restaurant

Historic Gaylord Building and Public Landing Restaurant

Between old buildings, charming museum, and a couple of outstanding restaurants, Lockport is definitely worth a visit, should you find yourself in this part of Illinois.

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Filed under Agriculture, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel