Centennial Farms Program Honors Bicentennial Ownership of Illinois Farms (VIDEO)
Gerald and Betty Brown’s family farm predates the Civil War, the horse-drawn plow and even the statehood of Illinois itself.
Today, Gerald uses a tractor and 12-row planter to plant corn on the same land his great-great-grandfather, Abraham Brown, worked by hand and deeded in 1817.
The Brown family has maintained ownership of their Union County farm for more than 200 years through wars, economic hardships and grueling manual labor during a time when horsepower literally came from horses. Today, the fifth generation continues the farm’s lineage of family ownership with a sixth and seventh generation living on the farm as the next to take on the task.
“I think it’s quite an accomplishment that it has remained in the Brown family for that many generations because many times something happens and it’s gone,” says Betty, who serves a supporting role on the farm as bookkeeper. “I feel like that is an accomplishment to be proud of. I know Gerald’s dad was very proud of his heritage on the farm, and not more than a few days was he ever away from this farm.”
A Field of Honor
The Brown farm represents one of only five family farms certified as bicentennial farms by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Illinois farms have earned sesquicentennial status, and the department has certified more than 10,000 with centennial designations, recognizing years of consecutive family ownership of a working farm.
“This Centennial Farm Program was established to recognize the importance of agriculture to the economy of Illinois and, more importantly, the pride and determination of the generations who have labored to maintain the family farm and are continuing to build our futures,” says Erin Cleary, who oversees the recognition program at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “As one can imagine, the hardship of farming 200 years ago without modern machinery or equipment was brutal.”
She notes the significance of farming for two centuries and calls it an amazing amount of time.
“We are so proud of our bicentennial farm families. They are our future. They are dedicated. It’s kind of like the American dream,” Cleary says. “When we look back at our farmers, they are the ones who built our future and they have been doing it for so many years.”
Abraham, the farm’s founding father, traveled from North Carolina to the rolling land of Union County, situated between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Gerald can only assume the amount of hard labor to clear trees and brush and remove stumps with horses and hands after a several-month journey in the early 1800s.
“I can’t imagine the team and wagon coming from North Carolina to here and the hardships of that,” Gerald says. “There are a lot of mountains between here and there, with no interstates in their time. They also had to cross rivers and streams, including the Ohio River, to get here. How they survived is beyond me.”
Building a Life and Livelihood
Following Abraham, the lineage of ownership continues through Charles, John, Ralph and now Gerald, whose son, Todd, and his three girls live on the farm today in the house Ralph built in 1948. Different generations of Browns rebuilt the farmhouse in the same location, where Gerald and the three generations before him were born and where some sadly passed from illness before modern medicine.
The Browns used materials from the farm to build those houses, from homes made of logs to the current farmhouse with studs milled from the farm’s oak trees. In these homes, the farm family experienced the advent of indoor plumbing and electricity while living a life that defined hard work and self-sufficiency.
“They grew their own food, had cattle and hogs, and raised their big gardens so they didn’t have to spend a lot of money that way,” Gerald says. “A lot of the past generations did a lot of hard work, a lot more than I had on the farm.”
Over time, the farm’s soil has grown peas, wheat, barley and, today, corn and soybeans. The Browns raised hogs, chickens, geese, and beef and dairy cattle, with the earlier generations living entirely off the land from the harvest of crops, livestock, and fruit and vegetable gardens.
About 145 acres of the original farm near Jonesboro remain under Brown family ownership today. A barn of more than 100 years old still stands, as does an old granary to store grain. The family has since added machine sheds, one of which proudly displays three signs recognizing the centennial, sesquicentennial and now bicentennial achievements of the farm.
Gerald’s dad, Ralph, built one machine shed in 1940 after the purchase of the farm’s first tractor and a pull-type combine, machines that replaced horses and hand harvests.
“At that time, there weren’t very many combines in the country,” Gerald remembers. “My dad did a lot of custom combining for a lot of people around the county.”
The Future of Farming
Certified Bicentennial Farms in Illinois
Reinneck Family, St. Clair County, 1800
Hogendobler Family, Pulaski County, 1816
Brown Family, Union County, 1817
Wiseman Family, Wabash County, 1818
Stewart Family, Randolph County, 1819
Gerald held careers off the farm and started farming near retirement when his father passed away. While he runs smaller equipment than most modern-day Illinois farms, his equipment measures three times larger than his dad’s. Gerald also operates his weed control sprayer with satellite guidance.
“My ancestors would be amazed at the way things are being done now,” he says. “My grandfather had a two-row corn planter, which was as big as anyone had at that time. They didn’t even have corn pickers. They shucked the corn by hand and threw the ear in the wagon.”
Gerald also looks ahead to the next generation of farming.
“I wonder what it will be in the future, another 100 years from now,” he says. “Farmers probably won’t even be out in tractors. They can just sit in the house and watch their (robotic) tractors go through the field.”