By Cara Jepsen

Long before the strip malls, housing developments, gas stations, and “black dirt for sale” signs took root on the stretch of land between I-90 and Garfield Farm in northwest La Fox, Illinois, the area was inhabited by the Illiniwek and then the Potawatomi Indians. After the latter were relocated to Iowa in the 1830s, farmers from the east arrived and settled there. Timothy Garfield, who brought his wife and eight children to the area from Vermont in 1841, wrote down what he saw in The Life of Timothy Powers Garfield: A Sketch by His Eldest Son, Franklin Green Garfield, which his descendants subsequently photocopied and made available to the public.

“The grass, the sloughs, the prairies were covered with a luxuriant growth of verdure. Grass, weeds, wild rice and reeds almost resembling canebrakes. Deer took cover in the tall grass and hazel brush along the edges of the groves near some creek or spring, gave birth to their young, and hung about on the same locality until autumn. Rattlesnakes crawled from out of the weeds and grass to bask in the sun wherever there was a road or spot uncovered with grass. Prairie wolves were abundant, like prairie hens and sandhill cranes.”

The Garfield family had purchased a claim on 440 acres for $650 from a Hoosier named Sam Culverson, but like the others who had staked claims in the area, they had to buy it again from the government a few years later for $1.25 an acre.

Jerome Johnson runs the Garfield Farm Museum, which occupies 280 acres of the Garfield’s original claim and boasts nine original buildings, a collection of artifacts, and over 2,000 documents. He admits that the 1840s were not the greatest time to be alive. In those days, Johnson says, people believed that night air and bathing made them sick, and fleas were rampant–which made it difficult to sleep in the summer. Medicine was not widely available, and at times whole households became sick–which is exactly what happened to the Garfields in 1847, when the family took turns coming down with typhus, and one of the younger sons died. But from their first days on the prairie, work took precedence over everything else.

The claim was at the fork of the Chicago-Saint Charles-Sycamore stage and wagon route, which meant it saw a lot of traffic, especially from teamsters hauling wagons to Chicago, which was a three-day trip from the farm. “The first night after the Culverson family left, a man traveling on horseback from the west at dusk, asked for a night’s entertainment for himself and horse of which he willingly paid 371/2 cents on the morning and departed well-satisfied,” wrote Franklin Garfield. “I think at the end of the first week mother had a dollar and a half she had received for her entertaining travelers.”

They took in so many people they decided to make it a business. The Garfield Inn eventually brought in $20 to $25 a day; Timothy Garfield’s wife and eldest son ran the place, while he and his other sons worked in the field. Five years after they settled on the farm, Garfield, who had been a brick maker and schoolteacher in Vermont, made 80,000 bricks out of mud from the creek that ran through the property. He and his sons built a two-and-a-half-story, 11-room inn that included a women’s sitting room, bar, dining room, bedrooms for the Garfields, and several rooms for guests, one of which was also used as a ballroom. The building is now the centerpiece of the museum and is 70 percent restored.

But there was little time for the family to relax, as Franklin Garfield explained in the memoir. “You were liable at any time, just as you were thinking of going to bed, to be called out to look after 2 or 3 teams which might drive up with 3, 4 or a half dozen people and sometimes thrice that number and all hungry, and so tired as you might be, you with mother and sisters would have to be up til midnight feeding and taking care of the crowd. It might be in the midst of harvest and when you would think there would be no travel and you might be tired enough to die; that was exactly the time a crowd would be on you.”

Johnson’s own family history is intertwined with that of the Garfields. His grandparents owned what he calls a “hobby farm” nearby, where he now lives. His mother was an acquaintance of Elva Ruth Garfield, the youngest daughter of Timothy Garfield’s youngest son, Robert. Robert’s wife, Hannah Mighell Garfield, wanted to make the farm into a museum even when she rented it out after her husband died around the turn of the century. Johnson speculates that Hannah’s desire to preserve the farm stemmed from her reaction to the Scandinavians who were moving into the area. “People of English ancestry felt culturally threatened–that they would totally disappear–because a large influx of European immigrants who arrived after the Civil War were changing the neighborhood,” says Johnson. “The Scandinavians came as hired hands, and several years later started buying up farms from settlers’ sons and daughters.”

In 1957 Johnson’s mother wrote Elva Garfield an 18-page letter encouraging her to carry out her mother’s wishes. Eighteen years later, Elva called her and said she was ready to do so. “My mother had no idea what she was talking about,” says Johnson. Elva refreshed her memory and started making plans.

A museum foundation was established, but Elva died unexpectedly in 1977, before the changeover was complete, and the foundation scrambled to purchase the farm from her estate. At that time it was home to dying box elders, rotting roofs, and a collapsing hog shed. Johnson, then a volunteer, began to apply for grants to restore the buildings most in need of help; public tours began in 1980. Nevertheless, Johnson says it’s been an ongoing struggle to find funding to restore the farm, create an official archive, and purchase surrounding land. The foundation recently received a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to repair the well and stabilize the 1906 dairy farm, among other things, and they get some financial support from area residents.

The museum’s busy, surprisingly modern office is in the back of Burr House, formerly a neighbor’s farmhouse. A staff of two full-timers, one part-timer, and one intern troubleshoots, raises funds, coordinates the schedules of over 200 volunteers, and plans the dozens of events that take place at the farm each year.

In addition to the farm, one of the museum’s primary missions is to preserve species of plants and livestock that lived in the area in the 1840s. Each year the farm sponsors an heirloom garden show, and it’s home to two Devon oxen, the same breed the pilgrims used, and over 50 colorful Java chickens. A pair of rare Embden geese recently fell prey to a hungry prairie wolf.

Johnson also hopes eventually to transcribe and organize the documents in the museum’s collection, including a trove of letters written by the Garfields to relatives in Vermont. He says they may provide a more accurate account than the biography, which Elva, a Christian Scientist, sanitized when she edited it in the 1930s.

There’s also a diary Garfield’s son Robert started keeping once he inherited the farm after Timothy’s death. It’s a litany of making hog pens, cutting wheat, laying fence, making racks and carriage sheds and stanchions for steer–and, of course, changes in the weather. The entries are terse. “John and I fix the picnic ground. Went to picnic in the afternoon,” he wrote in 1860. In 1863, “My bees swarmed, went into the chimney. Had a fine time getting them.” After Robert married Hannah in 1864, his notes become dominated by improvements made to the house. In 1875 he “worked like a good fellow at scraping and mixing in the house. Had got all the old paper off and had it all washed out below.”

“They wrote about what was important to them,” says Johnson. Indeed, the museum’s February newsletter adopts a similar tone. “In June, our ox, Cain, age 9 years, fell prey to his gluttony and consumed too much clover. As cattle have four stomachs and can’t reach for a Tums, excess gas can build up and suffocation results.” There’s also a story about employee Peter Malmberg’s wedding at the farm last fall to volunteer Heather Penkala–in full period costume. The two live in Burr House.

The Garfields’ inn business all but died after the railroad came in 1859. Robert turned to raising livestock, and the area subsequently became one of the largest dairy producers in the nation.

Timothy Garfield would turn over in his grave if he saw what the automobile and the expressway system have done to the prime farmland surrounding his claim, which now sells for up to $15,000 an acre, much more if it’s for housing. According to the American Farmland Trust, suburban sprawl has made this area of northern Illinois and parts of southern Wisconsin the third most threatened farmland in the United States, just behind Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley in California and a region spanning Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. Johnson is all for preserving what’s left.

“The most important thing is that we can feed ourselves. It helps pay the balance of trade, but our culture looks down its nose on farmers. This is one of the first nations in the world where you could own your own land. As trivial as that sounds, it’s why the government set things up the way they did.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jerome Johnson photo by Randy Tunnell.