Tag Archives: Illinois

Back to Bloomington, Illinois

As I noted in a much earlier post, the McLean County History Museum in Bloomington, IL, is where I started the serious research for my book. Happily, the folks at the museum were pleased with how the book turned out, and they invited me to come down and give the presentation I’d worked up to share with audiences just how amazing the story of corn is, its impact on history, and how many aspects of our lives it touches every day.

Among those reached by the museum’s promotional efforts were Herb and Pamala Eaton, owners of the Eaton Studio and Gallery in Bloomington. Herb and Pamala forwarded a note to me through the museum, inviting me to visit their gallery, to talk about corn. Herb is an artist and poet, and while his artwork covers a range of subjects, one of his favorite things to paint and sculpt is corn. So the Eatons figured we’d have a few things to talk about.

We enjoyed iced tea flavored with mint from their garden and sat amid art projects while talking about the golden grain—a customer who came in joining in the discussion. While Herb’s interest in corn is primarily visual—how it dances in the wind, the soft gold of the silks, the green of the fields—he was remarkably knowledgeable about corn’s impact in the Midwest, so we did have a lovely chat.

I must say that, while the photos included on the Eaton Studio and Gallery website give a good overview of Herb Eaton’s work, it doesn’t include my favorite pieces of corn art. So you may just have to visit Bloomington, if you want to see everything—and want to meet Herb and Pamala, which is definitely worthwhile.

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The Little Popcorn Shop

My interest in corn extends to all forms of corn: field corn, sweet corn, and, of course, popcorn. In my book, there is a more detailed history of popcorn (which was actually the first kind of corn to evolve but the last to reach us in North America), but I also enjoy some of the whimsical aspects of popcorn. For example, the Little Popcorn Shop in Wheaton, IL.

The Little Popcorn Shop began selling popcorn in 1921. It has, in the nearly 100 years since it opened, become a Chicagoland icon. The shop was once merely an alley between two older buildings, until a gentleman named E. Claire Brown decided that it was the perfect location for selling popcorn and candy. The alley, which was only 49 inches wide but 60 feet long, was roofed over and named the In-Between Shop. The shop changed hands, as well as its name, when Brown died, but the Little Popcorn Shop still focuses on buttered popcorn (freshly popped throughout the day) and old-fashioned, dime-store candy. It is also still only 49 inches wide. Fans are numerous and faithful, and delighted that the shop hasn’t changed.

It’s easy to see how the shop got it’s first name—the In-Between Shop. WhLittlePopShop-2-B

In this long view of the narrow store, you can see the racks of old-fashioned candy and, at the back, the shop’s owner Bill Wakefield, who is, as usual, popping up fresh, fluffy popcorn in the store’s old poppers. Little-Popcorn-Shop-longvie

You don’t have to wonder what size bag you’ll get when you’re ordering.

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Kline Creek Farm, Part 4

Happy to have an appreciative audience, Wayne, the docent, continued to offer anecdotes, stories, insights, and interesting bits of information. Here are a few items that I jotted down.

In 1890, popcorn wasn’t really being grown commercially. It was grown in gardens, for family use. Raising popcorn was often a young boy’s first job on the farm. The boy raising the popcorn might sell some of it to neighbors, but there were no popcorn companies.

Corncobs where ideal for getting the fire started in the wood-burning stove.

Tub of corncobs to burn in the kitchen stove

Tub of corncobs to burn in the kitchen stove

Women often wrote of their miserable lives on the frontier. Farming could bring prosperity, but it was a hard life.

Before 1850, half of all children died before age five. (This was true in cities as well as on farms.)

As towns began to grow, creameries would start up that would collect milk or cream—but butter was the best moneymaker. Women became known for the quality of their butter. They molds to identify the maker of the butter.

Great day. Lots to see and learn. Should you live in Chicagoland, or be visiting, and like a bit of history, here is a link to the Kline Creek Farm site, for further information. (And be advised, for special events, there are events for younger visitors. During the Corn Harvest, they were teaching children how to make cornhusk dolls. Plus there are a variety of farm animals to admire. It’s a great day in the country that isn’t too far from the city.)

http://www.dupageforest.com/Education/Education_Centers/Kline_Creek_Farm.aspx

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Kline Creek Farm, Part 3

I visited the barn and all the work sheds and out buildings, but I spent the most time in the old farmhouse. Here, a delightfully entertaining docent (Wayne, a former forest ranger) regaled me with stories of life on an 1890 farm.

By 1890, kitchens were fairly modern, at least compared to 50 years earlier. Stoves (vs. open fire places) were available, and iceboxes offered at least some ability to keep things cool and preserved. A pump at the sink brought in rainwater from a cistern, so no hauling water from a well.

In the first photo, you can see not only the “new” wood-burning stove, but also, on the wall nearby, the bathtub. Kitchens would be the only rooms with running water and, during the winter, the only ones that were warm. In the second photo, some kitchen essentials, including a butter tub and coffee grinder (in a style still available) sit atop the icebox.

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A nice kitchen was important, because the kind of work done on a farm called for lots of meal preparation. People consumed upwards of 6,000 calories a day (though a large man might consume 10,000 or more), so five meals a day were the norm. A big breakfast was served at 6:00 or 6:30. Around 9:30 or 10:00, there would be a break for a light meal (cornbread was a popular choice). Dinner was served at noon. This was the main meal of the day. Another break, or “lunch,” came at around 3:00 pm, and the final meal would be supper, around 6:00 pm or after the sunset. (I did a little post-visit research on the word “lunch,” and learned that it is shortened from “luncheon,” which in the 1600s came to mean “light repast between meals,” and earlier meant “a large piece of food” or “thick piece, hunk”—I’m guessing of bread, since that was a common element of a meal for those handling ploughs, and even today, a “ploughman’s lunch” in England will get you a hunk of cheese and thick piece of bread, along with a bit of salad and pickle, in almost any pub in the country.)

Popcorn might be served with cream and sugar for breakfast. Wayne assured me that this was an awesome way to consume popcorn. He also related that popped corn was sometimes crushed with a rolling pin, with the white flakes being picked out and mixed with homemade marshmallow, in what would have been roughly the equivalent of Rice Krispie Treats.

The big meals were taken in the dining room. In the winter, families that had servants might have the servants stand in the dining room, to add a bit more body heat.

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Kline Creek Farm, Part 2

Not everything was done by hand at this point. A machine had been devised that could cut the stalks near the base and bind them into clusters. These clusters of stalks could then be picked up and piled into corn shocks—those golden hills of corn that are so evocative of the harvest season.

Shock Binder

Shock Binder

However, though shock binders, as the machines were called, would help with the work, it wouldn’t be until the 20th century was more than half spent that real changes to harvesting corn would come into use. So the teepee-shaped corn shocks would be around for a while.

KlineCR-Corn-shocks

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Kline Creek Farm, Part 1

On a sunny, fall day, I headed to Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago. This is a restored farmstead that dates to the 1890s, and like many such places, is populated with splendidly well-informed, historically costumed interpreters who can introduce you to the period.

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Though I was looking forward to exploring the entire location, I had picked the time of my visit to coincide with the Corn Harvest. Before we would be allowed into the fields, to pluck the golden cobs from their stalks, we were treated to “Corn College,” a brief lecture on how farming in the 1890s compared to present day.

In the 1890s, farmers planted 8,000 to 10,000 seeds per acre, and hoped for a harvest of 25 to 30 bushels of corn per acre.

In the 1930s, hybrids were introduced. At first, in the rush to make things bigger and better, corn was bred that was too tall, with ears that were too big, so stalks fell over. But they eventually got it right.

Today, farmers plant as much as 36,000 seeds per acre, and look for yields of 200 bushels of corn per acre. Not only does each plant produce more corn than the older varieties, but plants have also been bred to tolerate being closer together, so more can be grown.

Makes it clear why corn is called a "row crop."

Makes it clear why corn is called a “row crop.”

But the old-style fields at Kline Creek, with their wide rows, were handsome and sunny, and I stopped to photograph them as we walked into the fields to harvest the corn. We harvested by hand, as was done well into the 1900s. Snap the ear off the stalk, pull off the husk, and toss the corn into the horse-drawn wagon that kept pace with our progress across the field. We only harvested a couple of rows. Had to leave some for the visitors who would come throughout the week.

The gold awaits

The gold awaits

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Barbed Wire

There’s an old poem that begins, “For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.” And so on—the point of the poem being that little things can make a big difference.

A bit of twisted barbed wire on Cathy’s farm reminded me that one of the little things that made a big difference on the prairies and Great Plains, when they were first being settled, was barbed wire. Fencing was fairly easy in the east, as trees were abundant, but out on the treeless plains, it often cost more to build fences than to buy the land. Plain wire fences had been attempted, but cattle easily broke through simply by leaning on them.

As with most inventions, lots of people were working on a solution, but one person came up with the idea that gained traction. In 1873, Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, IL, designed a simple, sharp, wire barb that was locked into a double-stranded wire. Glidden applied for a patent, which was issued in 1874. The acceptance was swift and international, and the impact was huge. On the Great Plains, it ended the era of the open range. Barbed wire also soon found other applications, besides farming, and by the end of the 1800s, it was widely used by the military worldwide.

Amazing what a difference a little twist of wire can make.

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