|By TIM ALEXANDER
FUNK’S GROVE, Ill. — While addressing the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Assoc. in Peoria earlier this year, Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Chuck Hartke remarked that if commodity prices remain low, some of the state’s farmers might be better served by diversifying into livestock.
At one time, livestock was a primary industry in Illinois. But Illinois’ legacy as a leading beef-producing state has nearly been forgotten.
This subject was recently explored in Roger Biles’ Illinois: A History of the Land and It’s People (2005; Northern Illinois University Press). Biles explains that by 1850, more than 100 “cattle kings” raised cattle on sprawling estates throughout much of central and northern Illinois, driving them to Chicago and eastern markets for sale. These agricultural entrepreneurs were among the wealthiest and most influential citizens in the state.
“The largest ranches, averaging 18,000 acres apiece, sprawled over 2 million acres in central Illinois and along the Kankakee River,” Biles wrote. “The bonanza farmers included men like Michael T. Sullivant, reputedly the world’s most successful farmer, whose 80,000 acres occupied parts of Champaign, Ford, Piatt and Livingston counties; William Scully, who owned 47,000 acres in Logan County; John T. Alexander, who owned a 26,500-acre barony in Champaign County; and Isaac Funk, owner of 26,000 acres in McLean County. By the time of the Civil War, Illinois ranchers shipped more beef cattle to New York City than all other states combined.”
Some of those expansive estates, such as Funk’s Historic Home near Bloomington and Old Gillett Farm at Elkhart, have been preserved and are open to tourists wishing to learn more about the lives of “beef barons” such as Isaac Funk, John Dean Gillett (dubbed “the Cattle King of the World” by the London Gazette) and their offspring.
Built in 1864 by Lafayette Funk, son of Isaac and Cassandra, Funk’s Historic Home at Funk’s Grove near Bloomington serves as the epicenter of the family’s once-vast land holdings. Caretakers Bill and Jackie Case have been leading free tours of the home, which is completely preserved with original family furnishings and open to the public by appointment, for sixteen years. Bill serves as a knowledgeable and informative tour guide who is well acquainted with the Funk family’s agricultural legacies.
“Isaac Funk broke this prairie with a primitive iron plow,” Case said. “He was tornadic and volcanic, a force of nature, and he was known as a man of integrity. After 40 years of driving cattle and hogs to Chicago, St. Louis, Galena, Cincinnati and New York, he built the richest, biggest soiled farm in U.S. history - 25,000 acres and 40 square miles. They called him the ‘Cattle King of Illinois.’”
Lafayette Funk used to drive cattle to the original stockyards in Chicago at Fort Dearborn from Funk’s Grove and was an original founder of the Chicago Union Stockyards, Case said. In addition, Lafayette served on the state board of agriculture for 29 years and has a floor named for him at the University of Illinois’ College of ACES.
“The Funks were educators, innovators, and teachers,” Case said. “They shared all of their farming methods and even their crops with their neighbors and lived frugally. Lafayette refused payment as a board member, saying ‘I own a farm, please give my salary to someone who needs it.’ He was also a state senator and an avowed abolitionist.”
E.D. Funk, son of Lafayette, established Funk Bros. Seed Co. in 1901 and invented the first commercial hybrid corn in 1916, Case said. When Funk Seed Co. was bought out in 1974, trusts were created to restore the Funk home and “to teach future generations about the Funk legacy,” Case said. “Because of the trust, nobody pays to come here.”
Rey Jannusch, a great-great granddaughter of Isaac and Cassandra Funk, serves as the curator for Funk’s Historic Home and raises cattle and grain on a nearby farm with her husband.
Another central Illinois landmark to the days of the “cattle barons,” Old Gillett Farm, is located near Springfield in Elkhart. Noted for importing Durham cattle from Scotland and developing the Shorthorn cattle breed, John Dean Gillett built his vast ranch on Elkhart Hill, the highest point between Chicago and St. Louis. Due primarily to his holdings, Elkhart became one of the largest shipping points on the Chicago to Alton Railroad. Gillett shipped over 2,000 head of cattle and 1,000 head of hogs to Europe annually and won numerous awards at the Chicago Livestock Show along with this grandson, Hiram Keays.
On Elkhart Hill, history lies undisturbed. According to its website, www.oldgillett farm.org, Indian burial grounds and rare botanical species are protected in the unique virgin woodland comprising the Elkhart Grove Forest Preserve. Walking trails wind among ancient Blue Ash, Burr Oak, and Black Walnut trees as cattle graze the hillside pastures. Descendents of Gillett still reside in the “Big House” where, as at Funk’s Historic Home, generations of original furnishings and memorabilia reflect the family’s history as one of the state’s leading cattle producers. At the time of his death, Gillett oversaw some 20,000 acres of farmland.
For information on visiting Old Gillett Farm, call 217-947-2346 or visit their website. To schedule a visit to Funk’s Historic Home, call 309-827-6792.