Lessons of the past create the future

By on February 18, 2011

Photo: Helen Bauer, an experienced amateur archaeologist, coordinates the 5-year archaeology investigation at Garfield Farm Museum. Here she shows a large animal bone that was discovered. They are finding new items all the time including shell casings, glass, dinnerware and pipe stems. The excavations will help map out how the farm area was originally laid out. Photo by John DiDonna

by Lynn Meredith
Campton Twp.—Jerry Johnson has had a vision 30 years into the realizing: to create a living history farm from the 1840s on the Garfield farm in Campton Township. The germ of the idea began when Johnson’s mother, Evelyn Johnson, wrote the last surviving Garfield a letter with ideas about things that could be done with the property. She heard back from Elva Garfield—18 years later.

The Garfield house had been an inn and tavern for farmers hauling grain to Chicago for shipment out the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic. Johnson saw the value of keeping the house, barns and surrounding land for the future generations as a representation of that global expansion.

“Things had been relatively left in tact, a lot less had been done than you’d expect,” Johnson said. “It has the historic integrity (needed for a museum). Not many farms have so much still standing, especially from people who weren’t famous.”

Johnson also realized that the family had kept much of the documentation connected with farm over its history since it was purchased in the 1840s.

“We have good documentation as well as family history that the family wrote down. A sense of history and heritage was important to them,” Johnson said. “Even in the 1890s, Elva’s mother had the idea that someday the house would be a museum to honor settlers, so they were saving things even back then.”

When no governmental body expressed interest in taking on the project of preserving the farm, Johnson decided to take it on.

“We’ve had wonderful support to be able to do it. It’s not something you do lightly, but you don’t know how much you’ve really undertaken,” he said.

Johnson’s vision is to preserve the farm as close to its 1840s formation as possible, so that it may be interpreted, as all history is.

“We’re not just looking at the past because it’s different, but what are the lessons of the past, what are the relevancies of the past in parts of life today?” Johnson said. “We have examples to look at and perhaps see that not everything is new under the sun.”

Garfield Farm focuses on its strengths: history, farming and the environment. With development wiping out most of the farms in Campton Township and surrounding areas, preserving and protecting farms in their original state helps educate those who have lost connection with the land. Johnson explains that when you live on a farm you can’t separate the land and the weather or climate change. You deal with it every day.

The educational experience-for youth and adults alike—that the living farm provides is hand-on. People actually participate in events such as plowing the field with oxen or making butter. Currently, these are special events throughout the season from June to December, but the goal is to have a full educational program on a working 1840s farm.

The first phase of reaching this goal has been 23 years in the making, that of acquiring adjacent property to protect it from development.

“We wanted to make sure it still looked like a farm,” Johnson said.

The phase the museum is in now is restoring all the buildings to their original state. That requires conducting the proper research through archaeological excavation.

“We need the archaeological research to determine what things were actually like here. We have a lot of good clues that are just more information to build a case as to what it was really like. It’s not just the artifacts themselves. It’s what the whole story can add to our findings,” Johnson said.

Excavations have been underway for the past five years and have uncovered many artifacts and even the cellar of the original log home built on this land.

“We will complete the systematic opening up of the whole area,” Board Member Helen Bauer said. “The people living here had trash piles, probably pretty close to the log house. Then plowing scattered the trash. We explore what is the extent of the 19th century dispersal of that trash.”

The project has used over 1,400 hours of volunteer help, along with AmeriCorps workers, for two seasons. Money is raised by the museum without assistance from any taxing body. So far $8 million has been put into the museum over the 30 years since its inception. Restoration of the buildings will require $3 million more.

Johnson sees the farm museum as a way to educate people about the connection of land and our democratic form of government.

“The desire to have land—which is basically so you can farm—is not simply where our food comes from, but where our democratic freedoms come from. They evolved out of the tradition of wanting to own your own land,” Johnson said. “It was a nation of farmers in 1776. It was something so significant, yet today we make no connection to it. This farm represents all those prairie farms that were established here.”

To become a friend of Garfield Farm Museum, visit www.garfieldfarm.org for more information.

Upcoming events

Feb. 19: Natural Area
Management Seminar
March 6: Antique Apple
Tree Grafting Seminar
March 12 and 13: Fox Valley
54th Annual Antique Show
April10: “Hands-on”
Dulcimer Workshop
April 30: Woodland
Wildflower Walk
May 7: Museum Awards Banquet
May TBA: 19th Century
Photography Lecture
May 22: Rare Breeds Show
June 8-12, 15-19:
Archaeological Excavation

For complete descriptionsand listings, visit www.garfieldfarm.org