Honoring Prairie Farmsteads: “Preferable by far to the timberlands” The past and the future collides at the USDA Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Contact(s): Veronica Hinke

In 1838, local resident Henry J. Abel was heard to say that prairie farmsteads were “preferable by far to the timberlands.” What made Abel say that? What was life like in this area, on the prairie, over 100 years ago? What kind of items would you have seen on the shelves in the local stores here then? Get a close-up look at the everyday household items people used a hundred years ago that have been all but forgotten.


We remember – and we want to help everyone remember by providing a display of very special historic prairie farm and home items in the Welcome Center at the USDA Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Thank you to a generous donation from the Schumachers, a family that farmed on this land from 1921 to 1940. You can see, first-hand, the tools that people once used to shape life on the Illinois prairie.   


The foundations of the Schumacher farm (Fairview Farm- Arthur and Erma Schumacher) buildings are visible and accessible at Midewin from the Iron Bridge Trailhead parking lot, which is located 2.6 miles north of the Midewin Welcome Center. Midewin volunteers have spent thousands of hours clearing and preserving the remains of the farmstead over the past two years. Volunteers have also spent dozens of hours researching items and cataloging each one. 


In the Welcome Center, you will see items like an eight-gallon milk can. These milk cans were filled with milk fresh from the Schumacher’s cows. Milk cans were used on U.S. dairy farms from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s. Dairy farmers stored and transported the raw milk in these cans to dairies in town. For families like the Schumachers, a milk stirrer to help cool the milk, was as much a household item as the remote control for the TV is today. A milk stirrer is also in the Welcome Center- it is a long rod that was used every day to stir the milk in the can quickly and evenly, as windmill-raised well water ran over it in the cooling basin.


“Morning and evening every day we used the stirrer to cool the milk in the can to maintain the fresh flavor of the of the cow's milk,” Alvin Schumacher said.   


Another more unusual item is a cast iron corn cob mold for baking corn bread. The mold makes intricate impressions of tiny corn kernels in the bread. As indoor kitchen stoves became more and more widespread throughout the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, cookware began to evolve as well. Cast iron retains heat well and distributes it evenly, making it a wonderful material for baking. Corn bread is traditionally cooked in cast iron. Heating the pan before adding the batter helps the bread achieve a nice brown color and crunchy texture.


A clear glass butter churn with wooden spinner paddles inside is also on display and gives an even greater look at how household dairy chores were as time-consuming then as social media is today. From the mid-1800s through the 1940s the hand-cranked butter churn was the most commonly used household butter churn in America. 


A honey pail provides a glimpse back into time at what commercial packaging looked like long ago on the store shelves here. 


Farmers relied heavily on wild game and their own farm animals for sustenance, and animals were cleaned for food preparation on the table right in the kitchen. The bell hog scraper that the Schumachers used to scrape the hair from hog hides is among the items currently in the Welcome Center.


Enamelware was the first mass-produced American kitchenware, and farm kitchens in the area would have had an enamel coffee pot just like the one that is part of the display. The huge two gallon coffee pot was used at harvest time when neighbors and hired hands gathered on farms to help bring in the crop. Production of enamelware began in the mid-1800s. People wanted a way of coating iron to stop metallic tastes or rust getting into food. Enamel is also acid resistant and easier to clean.


An enameled farm table is at the center of the display. Enamel-topped tables were popular in farm kitchens on the prairie in the 1920s to the 1950s. They provided a smooth, easy-to-clean surface for food preparation, especially for rolling out dough for homemade breads, pastries and more. 


Drift back in time and explore your way through the remains of prairie farmsteads on foot on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Midewin Archaeologist, Heritage Program Manager and Tribal Liaison Joe Wheeler will lead the 90-minute easy walking quarter-mile tour from the Iron Bridge Trailhead. Learn about the National Register-eligible Rodgers/Schumacher Farmstead, which was continuously farmed from the mid-19th century to 1940.


“It was actually during the Agricultural Era of Midewin, from 1830 to 1940, when most of

the prairie disappeared under the sizzle of the self-scouring steel plow,” Wheeler said.


If you are not available for this special tour, a self-guided walking tour “100 years on The Rodgers/Schumacher Farmstead Site” is available. You can pick up a printed copy of the tour in the Welcome Center.


Look for more items from the Schumacher prairie farmstead in locations throughout the community. An on-loan display of Schumacher farm items is planned for public viewing through the months of March and April in the Joliet Area Historical Museum (204 N. Ottawa St., Joliet, IL 60432). More locations will be announced soon. Each display will focus on a different theme. If you are interested in hosting a display in your public space, please contact: Midewin_RSVP@fs.fed.us.


On Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, at 1 p.m., Wheeler will speak on “Farming the Illinois Frontier” at the Manhattan-Elwood Public Library, 240 Whitson St., Manhattan, IL, 60442.