New Web site covers Illinois' ag history

Chris Dettro

A new Web site will allow future generations to see and hear the history of Illinois agriculture by those who lived it.

The Illinois State Museum on Tuesday launched its “Audio-Video Barn” Web site -- -- which features 300 hours of interviews with more than 130 people involved with agriculture in Illinois over the past 129 years.

The Oral History of Illinois project, the result of a two-year-long project, is the first major collaboration between the state museum and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“Illinois has a very long agricultural history,” said Bonnie Styles, director of the state museum. “Our research and collections document that history from Native Americans, who were the first to cultivate maize and squash, forward. Now we’re adding a new dimension to that.”

The project began in fall 2007 with a $565,000 grant to the Illinois State Museum Society from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Styles said the grant reviewers “recognized this as a model for others to follow.”

Old and new interviews

A total of 78 new interviews were recorded, many with digital video, throughout the state. Those were included with 61 interviews from old audiotapes, most of them archived at the University of Illinois Springfield and Northern Illinois University. The oldest interview is from the state museum’s own collection — a 1952 interview conducted with then 82-year-old George Howe, a farmer and banker who talked about farming in the 1880s.

Lloyd Johnson, 69, quit working his Madison County farm three years ago, but still owns the land. He was on the Illinois Farm Services Agency board, and thinks he was asked to be an interview subject in part because of that.

“But there aren’t a lot of black farmers,” said Johnson, who also is a gospel singer. “I suppose I’d be considered — although I don’t see it that way — as a different perspective to farming.”

Robert Warren, project director and curator of anthropology at the state museum, said it was important to not concentrate solely on corn and beans, and to seek diversity, when deciding on interview subjects.

The interviews include grain farmers, beekeepers, elk ranchers, tree farmers, oregano growers, Belgian draft horse breeders, 4-H kids, college professors, broadcasters and pumpkin growers, among others.

“We started with 163 names, whittled it down to 50 and then talked with 84 people to end up with 78 new interviews,” he said.

Searchable site

Warren said the Web site is special in that it is searchable. The audio and video clips can be searched by topic, name, date or geographic location. The Web site also features resources for students and teachers, including instructional videos on how to do oral history interviews and lesson plans based on agricultural themes.

There are about 2,500 audio-video clips, each of a minute or two in length, on various subjects, all indexed on the Web site. There also are 10-minute-long segments on a variety of topics.

Sit-down interviews were conducted in barns and family kitchens, and “walk-and-talk” interviews were done while accompanying some subjects around their farms, Warren said.

“No subject is more central to Illinois’ history or identity,” said Mark DePue, director of oral history for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

In the past, students and scholars have relied heavily on transcripts of oral history because they didn’t have the time to listen and watch the entire interviews for the information they needed.

“No more,” he said. “Now they can quickly and easily find the information they want. We have restored the voice and the face to oral history.”

Although the Audio-Video Barn is full, state museum officials will submit a follow-up proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences “to take it in another direction,” Warren said.

DePue said the ALPLM will continue to conduct interviews on the state’s agricultural history and post them on its own Web page. Those interviews won’t be searchable, however, he said.

Chris Dettro can be reached at (217) 788-1510

Who’s featured?

Researchers and volunteer interviewers with the Illinois State Museum and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum conducted 78 new interviews for the Audio-Video Barn Web site, and central Illinois is well represented.

Another 61 audio-only interviews from the University of Illinois Springfield — a pioneer in the field of oral history — and Northern Illinois University, plus one from the state museum archives, also are part of the project.

Interview excerpts

*Ellis Vanderpool, 75, a beekeeper who lives on a small family farm at Arenzville, talking about how he got started in bees:

“Well I had some strawberries first, before I had the rest of the orchard. We had strawberries a couple years. And there was an old gentleman that was going to bring me the bees so when it’d come time that the strawberries were blooming, we went to get the bees, to ask him to bring the bees — and he’s had rheumatoid arthritis bad — and he said he can’t pick them up, he said, ‘You guys are going to have to move them over there yourselves.’ ”

“... So we put on all kinds of coveralls and everything else and went over there, and he was one of these beekeepers that didn’t believe in plugging holes up in the hive. … We got them over here and decided if we were going to have to do that, we were going to have the bee business ourselves.”

 *The late Rolland Stone of Pleasant Plains, discussing the beginning of Stone Seed Co in a 1972 interview:

“Back in about 1928 about, why, I started growing open-pollinated corn or selecting open- pollinated corn from my fields and we ear-tested it and sold it to a few farmers. Had just a few bushels we got every year, and from there on in 1932 we started having an acre of hybrid seed corn, which the university released. Then we grew two acres, then four acres, came on up that way.”

“They (the university) released the foundation. See, that was the first year you could have obtained inbreds to cross. The University of Illinois would release them out, and farmers would grow it.”

* Sam Meteer, 20, state vice president of Future Farmers of America in 2007-08, about growing up on a family farm at Athens:

“Well, I mean, I probably had a better, what I think, of a work ethic and outlook on how to try to succeed at life. I mean, growing up on a farm, you really get to see the kind of aspects of how to do things, how to work, what you need to do to make yourself better.”