Farm Preserves Natural Heritage

  • The Garfield Farm Museum on the fringe of Chicago suburban growth is not only preserving the area's agricultural heritage, but also some of its natural heritage. The morning sun silhouettes the farm behind the Mill Creek Prairie. Photo by Lester Graham.

Along the fringes of urban growth farm museums are sprouting here and there. They’re trying to preserve a bit of the rapidly changing terrain (as fields become subdivisions), but one of these farm museums recognizes that the land wasn’t always farmland. Before it was plowed there was another earlier, vibrant landscape. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Along the fringes of urban growth, farm museums are sprouting here and there. They’re trying to preserve a bit of the rapidly changing terrain, as fields become subdivisions. But, one of these farm museums recognizes that the land wasn’t always farmland. Before it was plowed, there was another earlier, vibrant landscape. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

(sound of farm animals)

With his wood-buttoned wool pants and vest, and wearing squared-toed hand-made boots, Kirk Bunke looks every bit the 1840’s farmer. He’s feeding and watering the chickens and livestock in the old barns and barnyards at the Garfield Farm Museum. These animals are as much of a different era as Bunke’s clothes. The Black Java chickens, Narragansett Turkeys, and milking Devon cattle are rare domestic breeds from an earlier day; some dating back to the 18th century.

But there are features at this museum farm that date back even earlier, thousands of years earlier.

(sound of walking through prairie grass)

Bunke is walking me through Mill Creek Prairie in the far west suburbs of Chicago. By late summer, the tall prairie grasses will tower overhead, six and seven feet tall and the roots go even farther down into the soil. Bunke says the Garfield Farm thought it was important to preserve some of that original prairie.

“We wanted to be able to show the public what Illinois looked like when families like the Garfields moved here in the 1830’s and 40’s. Without an understanding of the prairie grasses that made the soils as rich as they are, it’s hard for people to understand why a family would want to move eight children all the way from Vermont here to northern Illinois just for the opportunity to farm.”

Bunke says these prairie plants conditioned the soil, a natural resource that farmers have been banking on ever since the first plow turned over the dirt.

“It’s a combination of their deep root systems being able to move nutrients up from deeper portions of the soil and the dying bio-masses that the taller plants, as they begin to decay, they help to add nutrients back into the surface soils and creates a richer loam.”

(sound of birds on prairie)

As farmers discovered just how bountiful the rich prairie soil was, it was exploited as almost no other resource has been. The corn that replaced the prairie plants at first benefited from the nutrients left behind. For the first several plantings, according to credible accounts, the corn plants grew to eleven and twelve feet high. As the benefits of the prairie plants faded, the corn didn’t grow as high. In 100 years the tall grass prairies, which had stood for millennia, almost completely disappeared, replaced by crops. Today, it takes a lot of fertilizer and other chemical inputs to get results anything close to those crops that first benefited from what the prairie did naturally.

Jerome Johnson is the Executive Director of Garfield Farm. He says few people even remember the tall grass prairies. He says it’s come to the point that to most people prairie simply means flat land. Johnson says that’s why it’s important that part of the farmstead includes some of the natural landscape.

“And the incredible thing with this site, aside from the original buildings and furnishings and documents and all that survived, we even have 20 acres of prairie that was never plowed. So, that is just unheard of. You’d have to walk over 40-thousand acres of Illinois to find 20 acres of unplowed prairie. That’s how rare it is.”

In a subdivision not too far from Garfield Farm, Jack Schouba is pleased with the farm’s prairie restoration. Schouba is an environmentalist who’s fought to preserve other prairie remnants. He says Garfield Farm was progressive when it decided to go beyond preserving the agricultural history of the area, and also preserve some of the natural history.

“Well, to me the most important is just the… kind of the moral obligation. I don’t think we have the right to destroy everything. But, aside from that, I think just for people to get an idea of what a prairie is and what Illinois was really like and how it got to be the way it is today. And then Garfield, of course, deals with the early days of farming around here so it’s just a natural connection between the original landscape and how these early farmers dealt with it.”

(sound of birds on prairie mixed with frogs in wetland)

Garfield Farm Museum has also preserved some of the wetlands — giving voice to frogs who haven’t been heard here in any great numbers for more than 120 years. And Kirk Bunke says other wildlife has been drawn to the farm since the restoration of the natural areas began.

“Probably the single biggest impact on bird habitat has been the restoration of wetlands. Just yesterday we had two Sandhill cranes here on the farm. We see an awful lot of waterfowl, blue herons, occasional green heron. Last summer, someone spotted an arctic tern. So, it’s been just amazing bird watching.”

Garfield Farm is raising money to acquire adjacent
land, to increase its natural areas and farmland and create something of a
buffer. The farm is besieged by urban sprawl. Construction can be seen in
every direction around the farm. It will end up a small green spot on the
map, but not completely isolated. Its preservation of natural areas is
part of a green corridor. The township and some nearby subdivision
neighbors have also put aside tracts of land to keep just a little bit of
the natural areas for wildlife and for future generations to see where
there were once farms, and before them… prairie.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.