Kane County History: Elgin Celebrates Our Once-Burgeoning Dairy Business

Kane County History: Elgin Celebrates Our Once-Burgeoning Dairy Business

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Elizabeth Marston, director of the Elgin History Museum.

Where have all the cows gone?

That’s one of the questions answered by the Dairies to Prairies project, a documentary and traveling exhibit project from the Elgin History Museum and Grindstone Productions set to premiere Sunday, June 24, at the Gail Borden Library.

The museum started this project to tell an environmental history of Elgin and northern Kane County through the change in land use.

At one time, the area had more than 140 dairies, dairy farms, and creameries. Now there are only three dairies in Kane County, and the land is a planned mix of preserved open space with restored prairies and homes.

The project connects new homeowners living in far west Elgin to the history of the land, while remembering Elgin’s great dairy heritage.

The project should really be called “Prairies to Dairies to Prairies,” because before European settlement in the 1830s, Illinois had millions of acres of undisturbed prairie. A large and varied diversity of plants, animals, and insects kept the environment in balance.

When the dairy industry started in the 1850s, the land was still open space, but agricultural with the prairie plowed under for row crops and pasture. In 2018, there is less than 1 percent of prairie left in Illinois, creating an environmental problem in terms of biodiversity and natural stability.

Dairy was Elgin’s first great wealth, with successful individuals in dairy farming, cheese factories, creameries, the condensing plants, butter companies, dairy equipment manufacturing, the Elgin Board of Trade, and raising dairy cattle.

The remnants of the dairy industry include the grand Victorian homes built for the “Big Butter and Egg” men in Elgin, such as John Newman and the Alfred Church; and the butter sticks you bring home from the store in the “Elgin” style.

Go West, Young Man

Elgin’s westward suburbanization moved slowly over the years, but hit Randall Road in the late 1980s. City limits were expanded almost to Route 47 in some parts of the countryside.

Campton Hills is an example of the conflict of urban expansion. In the late 1990s, developers were eager to annex land into Elgin to tie into city water and sewer for new homes. The residents of Campton Township wanted to preserve a rural way of life and incorporated in 2007 to control development of the land.

The exhibit and film will explore different aspects of dairies and prairies. The exhibit emphasizes Elgin’s reputation for pure and healthy milk in an era where bad milk could infect people with tuberculosis or typhoid.

Gail Borden insisted on farmers following the Dairy Ten Commandments, which emphasized clean milk cans, strainers, cows, and barns. The film will feature the Farm to Table movement with local produce, efficient modern dairies, and the trend towards certified raw milk.

Traveling Exhibit

Both the film and the exhibit highlight the efforts of Kane County and the Forest Preserve District to plan and manage a balance of growth, progress, and open space.

Phil Broxham, of Grindstone Productions, produced the film along with Jerry Turnquist and Bill Briska. The team has filmed hours of interviews with a variety of land use experts and environmental educators to help tell the story. See the museum’s website for clips.

The exhibit gives a basic understanding of a changing landscape through graphic use of maps and population charts combined with personal stories. The impact of viewing the film and seeing the exhibit produces a dynamic educational experience.

The Elgin History Museum and Grindstone Productions started the Dairies to Prairies project in 2016 with awareness building and fundraising opportunities. To date, more than $90,000 has been raised to fund the film and exhibit, with much support from heritage farm families, local foundations, and granting agencies.

The exhibit and film will travel over the next few years to libraries, schools, the Kane County Fair, museums, and nature centers. Don’t miss it!

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d2p-logoDairies to Prairies tells the story of Elgin’s dairy heritage. The project will also explore how these former dairy farms have come under pressure from suburban development, modern day agriculture and efforts to restore natural prairies. This story will be presented through a feature-length documentary film and companion traveling exhibit. This documentary film and traveling exhibit is being created by The Elgin History Museum and Grindstone Productions. Become a fan of the Dairies to Prairies Facebook Page to get a chance to see rare photos and video trailers in your news feed.

Project support comes from: YOU!

Your donations will help make this project possible. Significant contributors will be recognized in the opening and closing film credits. You can donate online or by sending a check to the museum.

It’s easy to make a secure donation to the Elgin Area Historical Society. Please note the Prairies to Dairies project when donating. You will be redirected to the PayPal site to make your donation. You do not need a PayPal account to donate. The Elgin Area Historical Society is a 501c3. Thank you!