|By CINDY LADAGE
ELKHART, Ill. — These days, the Old Gillett Farm serves two functions. It is home to Lisa and Bob Pasquesi and their family, and it is also a wonderful historic agricultural heritage that is open to the public.
The Pasquesi family represents the seventh generation to live on this farm that was created by John Dean Gillett, better known as the Cattle King of the World.
When Gillett moved into Logan County from Connecticut in the late 1800s, he began purchasing land.
Lisa explained, “At that time, the prairie was not considered to be very valuable. John Gillett paid a nickel an acre.”
For Gillett, though, the land was perfect for his purpose, grazing cattle. The land and cattle brought him great wealth. He was also instrumental in cattle breeding. Gillett brought Durham cattle from England, and using this unique stock, he was one of the pioneers in developing the Shorthorn cattle breed.
Besides wealth, the Old Gillett Farm also brought the railroad to Elkhart for Gillett to ship his cattle to market. During the late 1800s, Elkhart was one of the largest shipping points on the Chicago & Alton Railroad.
The shipping of livestock was so big, that Gillett shipped more than 2,000 head of cattle and 1,000 head of hogs to Europe annually. The London Gazette that gave him the title The Cattle King of the World.
Gillett and his wife, Lemira Parke; who Abraham Lincoln courted as well, built a home, now known as the “Big House” on Elkhart Hill in 1870. Lisa Pasquesi said this hill, which was formed by a glacier, is the highest point between Chicago, Ill. and St. Louis, Mo.
A picture of how life was for Gillett through his own eyes was offered to Pasquesi recently when she found and read his journal.
She was swept away when she read a line where he talked about taking his granddaughter out on a horse sharing the prairie, listening to the songbirds and feeling the wildflowers so tall that they lapped at the stirrups and his boots.
Gillett was also a close friend of Lincoln, who was the family lawyer
“When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, grandfather Gillett was given the honorary position of accompanying him as his personal body guard,” Pasquesi said.
In 1890, when Gillett died, he owned more than 20,000 acres. In addition to the Hill Farm, there are still several farms in Logan County owned by the family. Lemira Parke Gillett built an Episcopalian Chapel in his memory that is still in the family today. That chapel is the only private chapel owned and operated in Illinois.
Besides the Lincoln connection, Gillett’s oldest daughter married three-term Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby, who was also a close friend of Lincoln and was at Lincoln’s side when he died and served as a pallbearer at his funeral. Pasquesi’s grandmother was a friend of the Adlai Stevenson family. He wrote a presidential campaign speech sitting on the Gillett front porch.
Pasquesi, who with her family, still lives in the mansion. To tour the “Big House” on the hill, call her at 217-947-2346. The home is full of seven generations of antiques including Venetian furnishings from the villa where a family member married a count, to some of the furnishings brought from the Drake Hotel in Chicago that the family once owned. The original portion of the home was built in 1870, with an addition added in 1906.
The Pasquesis ran an Arabian horse breeding operation for years, but phased it out to concentrate on expanding the farm business by opening it to the public.
The farm has been open to the public for the past three years. She still enjoys working with the animals and the gardens on-site.
She credits her enthusiasm for the farm to her grandmother.
Tours of their historic home are available with the first floor open for viewing. In the near future, Pasquesi hopes to open the upstairs playroom as well as the carriage house and historic barns.
Besides the “Big House,” there is also a three-bedroom guest house that serves as a bed and breakfast along with a pavilion where many retreats, weddings and family reunions take place.
For details visit www.oldgillettfarm.org
This farm news was published in the June 14, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.