Leland Sweatman of Virginia, Ill., has seen Illinois agriculture progress from horsepower to high technology.

Leland Sweatman of Virginia, Ill., has seen Illinois agriculture progress from horsepower to high technology.

“Without giving away my age, I will say I have run the gamut from following a team of horses to riding in an air-conditioned cab reading the newspaper while a (global positioning system unit) was guiding the tractor across the field,” said Sweatman, who retired from farming in 1993.

Illinois farmers like Sweatman made history by being among the most productive in the world. Now they will have the chance to tell their story for posterity.

The Illinois State Museum has received a $564,651 National Leadership Grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences to develop educational resources on the history of Illinois Agriculture.

The museum will work with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to record oral history interviews of Illinois citizens with ties to agriculture and make them available on the Internet.

Bonnie Styles, director of the Illinois State Museum, said the project brings together the cultural and natural history of the state.

“If it wasn’t for the rich, fertile prairie soil, we wouldn’t be telling this story,” she said.

The first American Indians experimented with cultivated native plants about 5,000 years ago. Since then, people have learned how to drain, tile and till the Illinois soil, making this a rich agricultural state.

“It really underscores that the farmers of this state have been at the forefront – they have been the protectors of our natural resources,” said Leslie Sgro, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The state museum is under the umbrella of DNR.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture also is lending support to the project, especially by helping put researchers in touch with possible interview subjects.

Chuck Hartke, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said many Illinois citizens now are one, two or even three generations removed from life on the farm.

“They don’t understand what it takes to produce food, fuel and fiber to the world,” he said.

So far, about 140 interview subjects, from bison and elk ranchers to veterinarians to beekeepers and grain farmers, have been identified. The list probably will be narrowed to about 50. The project should take about two years.

Robert Warren, curator of anthropology of the Illinois State Museum and Mark DePue, the presidential museum’s director of oral history, are directing the project.

Warren said interview teams plan to fan out across the state to capture videotaped histories with a diverse group of Illinois citizens from farmers to agribusiness men and women.

A searchable database will be created and an interactive interface called the Audio-Video Barn is being created for the Web.

DePue said no other subject is more central to the state’s identity. The oral history project “democratizes” history by giving voice to the ordinary men and women of the state, not just the political leaders, he said.

“The rest of society neglects and over looks them,” he said. “This project will give them a chance to get their due.”



Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528 or chris.young@sj-r.com.