A Cow's Place in History Illinois State Museum Wants to Document, Preserve Agricultural Tradition

Article excerpt

Byline: Mick Zawislak


When a network television news show recently needed a Chicago- area example of a dairy farm, the crew knew exactly where to go.

It wasn't hard to pinpoint. With 625 milking cows, Golden Oaks Farm near Wauconda is the largest dairy operation in Lake County, and one of the last.

That film clip caught the attention of Robert Warren, who is leading the Illinois State Museum's long-awaited Oral History Project.

The idea is to explore the nooks and crannies of age-old agriculture practices and present them as personal stories in a modern, interactive format on the Internet.

"I got on the Web site and found out where the dairy farm was. That's our connection," he said.

So it came to be that Golden Oaks, founded 60 years ago and still owned by the billionaire Crown family, became the only agricultural concern in Lake County - and one of few in northeastern Illinois - to be included in the two-year, nearly $1.2 million project.

Changing times

Since the late 1960s, the number of farms in Illinois has decreased from 130,000 to about 72,000.

Those that remain are larger, however, in part because of better equipment, seeds and fertilizers.

How and why these changes occurred will be illustrated through personal stories, and the agricultural experience will become available to a public that might not otherwise get to see it.

Golden Oaks is one of three remaining dairy operations in Lake County, but it is in the unusual position of being protected for the foreseeable future. The Crown family in recent years has increased the size of the farm and its nearby holdings act as a buffer to suburban development.

There is no sign that will change, according to Nate Janssen, dairy operations manager. That's why he agreed to participate.

"We want to maintain the integrity of agriculture in an area where agriculture is going away," he said. "This was one of the most booming (dairy) areas in the country."

Though agriculture has been and continues to be a big part of Illinois' past and future, state museum offerings are limited to artifact collections, such as old plows and hand tools in storage.

Drawing-board plans someday call for an expansion of the Springfield facility to include a Hall of Agriculture. There is no telling when that might happen.

Shared experience

So as a first step to expand its offerings, researchers have been fanning out across Illinois with video and audio recorders to document the back roads of agriculture.

Dozens of audiotapes previously made and archived at libraries at the University of Illinois at Springfield and Northern Illinois University will be included. The material will be digitized and edited for sound quality and included in the "Audio-Video Barn" - an interactive Web site indexed by theme, topic and geographical location. That Web site is scheduled to go online in September.

From beekeepers to horseradish farmers and from the 1920s to the present, the intent is to provide a wide-ranging, personal perspective in a modern format. Fifty participants will be interviewed.

"We're kind of starting out small in the new direction," Warren said. "One of the key things is all the interviews will be searchable, like a computer database. …