Twenty-two-year-old Mike Von Bergen gripped the wheel of his parents' new combine as he took the first pass of the season through the McHenry County cornfields. The lanky blond farmer liked the $125,000 John Deere's big cabin and quiet engine. But what really pleased him was seeing that the corn-head attachment he'd rebuilt was doing its job.
Driving at 3.2 miles per hour, he looked down proudly at the 22-foot span of four-foot-long metal prongs as they ripped the life out of eight cornstalks at a time. The plants wavered, then dropped suddenly to the earth as the machinery snared the ears, stripped their kernels, and spat them behind the cabin into the combine's holding bin. Leaves, cobs, and dust shot through the air, creating the agribusiness equivalent of a crematory haze. Von Bergen smiled, saying: "It looks like nature meeting its maker."
The same might be said for the farmland that's being bulldozed all around him. Bulldozing long ago supplanted farming as the building block of northeastern Illinois' economic development. Since 1970, when Von Bergen was a year old, suburban sprawl has paved over 250,000 acres in the six-county metropolitan area, reducing farmland to 41 percent of the total land area from about 50 percent. The collar-county farmland that's left isn't as healthy as it may appear, since more than half is owned by absentee landlords, many of whom eagerly anticipate conversion. Within 20 years the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission predicts that the metropolitan area's expanding boundaries will consume another 6 percent of the total land area--roughly 220 square miles--a land mass about equal in size to the city of Chicago.
Von Bergen plans to make his living farming, which may mean he will have to relocate when the edge of metropolitan Chicago gets too near. In fact, the field he was shelling corn on only came into his family because his late grandparents had themselves been forced into retreat. The Von Bergens farmed in Elk Grove Township just west of O'Hare Airport until 1963, when they sold their small vegetable farm to a shopping-center developer and moved to another fertile piece of ground near the Wisconsin border.
Clarence and Edith Heinkel also farmed in Elk Grove Township, hanging on until 1964, when the land-conversion craze pressed them west several miles beyond the Fox River along the Northwest Tollway. Now in their late 70s, the Heinkels couldn't imagine that during their lifetime the sprawl would reach them a second time. When it did, their Elk Grove experience in the land-development game was a big help. They held their ground against the wave of real estate men, finally selling their little farm on Kane County's Randall Road two years ago to a Japanese conglomerate for $7.5 million.
A third Elk Grove Township farm family did what their former neighbors the Von Bergens and Heinkels find amazing. Allen Busse refuses to budge from land that was homesteaded by his German-born great grandparents. Surrounded by houses and industry and topped by an endless line of aircraft making a final descent on the world's busiest former farm ground, the tiny Busse spread has become an island in the sea of metropolitan sprawl. Its cantankerous 65-year-old caretaker, with his unkempt beard and folksy accent, couldn't give a hoot.
Mel Von Bergen was 19 years old when his parents left Elk Grove for north McHenry County's Hebron Township. Two years later, in 1965, he married a local girl from neighboring Alden Township and began farming full-time. He, his wife Bobette, and their son now work 1,250 acres of land, raising 600 acres of corn, 300 acres of soybeans, and 350 acres of vegetables. They own 400 acres, pay an average rent of $100 per acre on the remainder, and wish that more rental acreage were available in the area.
Tall and lean, Mel stood in his warehouse on a chilly September morning, poking at the garage-door-opener control with a screwdriver. He wore a dusty farm-equipment cap, a sweatshirt, and a drooping pair of blue jeans that clung to his narrow torso.
"Ever heard of something called the farm economy?" he said, flashing a toothy smile, when asked what led him and his wife to open a fruit and vegetable stand. "Corn and bean prices were the pits in the early 80s, so we had to diversify." Their farm is located on Illinois Route 173, between the Chain O'Lakes State Park and the town of Hebron. They always draw a good crowd in the fall, especially on sunny weekend days. "We get a lot of Lake Geneva traffic," he said, "so we have a good market for this kind of business. In farming you're somewhat your own boss, but the hours are crap. You go seven days a week, often until 8 PM. Most of the time by Wednesday noon we get our 40 hours in."
The Von Bergens employ two people full-time, but this day's work crew numbered nine. The hired hands--all Mexican--stood around two flatbed wagons, bundling bunches of ornamental corn under the watchful eye of Bobette Von Bergen's father, Harold Shulz, a 79-year-old retired factory foreman. Freshly picked tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash filled small boxes or bushel baskets atop tables on one side of the huge room. Crates of peaches, apples, and citrus--imported from Michigan, Washington, and California--were stacked atop wooden pallets. A dairy barn stood on this spot until it was destroyed by wind a decade ago. After the Von Bergens bought the farm, they constructed this warehouse and retail space for $40,000. Only the front half has a concrete floor; the earth floor in the rear is a constant reminder that the family can't always spare $6,000.
Out the back door, rows and rows of produce yielded to a cornfield. Three-quarters of a mile away stood several white buildings that formed the Von Bergens' original farmstead, which was sold after Mel's parents died. In every direction farm fields reached toward the flat horizon, obstructed only by an occasional silo, its dome top glistening in the sunshine. To the east telephone poles ran along Greenwood Road toward Crystal Lake, 15 miles south, where subdivisions seem to advance through the farm fields like an unstoppable infantry.
McHenry County has turned into a bedroom community for the northwest-suburban business centers that have grown up beyond O'Hare along the Northwest Tollway. This mini-metropolis's capital is Schaumburg, a 35-year-old suburb that's home to Woodfield Mall, 65,000 residents, and a shiny skyline. New growth is paving over the lands farther west--especially beyond the Fox River in Elgin. With Rockford only a 45-minute drive on the tollway from Elgin, builders and realtors are bracing for a home-buyer boom next fall, when Sears Roebuck and Company's merchandising group moves into its new headquarters in Hoffman Estates. The retailer will occupy 200 acres of a 780-acre site that a Sears subsidiary plans to develop into a huge corporate park that could one day employ 45,000 people--as many as now work in Schaumburg.
If the Von Bergens had been feeling squeezed, they wouldn't have added to their debt load this year by buying a new combine. More significant, if they expected real estate developers to engulf their farming community anytime soon, they wouldn't have encouraged their son to become a farmer.
Nevertheless, the couple recently joined ten other farmers and enrolled nearly 3,000 acres of contiguous farmland in the state agricultural-district program. Land designated an ag district under the 11-year-old voluntary program cannot be developed or rezoned for ten years; this is intended to encourage developers and governmental planners to direct growth to areas where landowners may be less intent on keeping their property under cultivation.
"We want to stick with agriculture," Mel said, adding that ag districting is the growth-regulation mechanism endorsed by the Farm Bureau, the farm community's most effective lobbying arm. McHenry County farmers have embraced this concept more than anyone in the state: 11 of Illinois' 40 ag areas are located there. A former McHenry County Farm Bureau president, Mel said that ag areas offer a modicum of security for farmers who want to do what they know best in the shadow of the metropolis.
Like most farm families, the Von Bergens would rather farm than get rich by selling out to a developer. And like most farm families, they also want to be free to decide what they please. Mel says his parents succeeded in their wish to escape urban encroachment; he has never had a realtor knock on the door either--except his older brother Gordon, who quit farming because he didn't like the long hours and low wages.
At noon the refrigerator door swung open and closed as Bobette Von Bergen pivoted smoothly, unpacking groceries and plopping luncheon meats, cheeses, and bread on the kitchen table. Her husband and her father sat down for lunch. Everything had come from the grocery store, except the tomatoes, which came from the backyard.
Bobette grew up five miles away, and her family had a chicken coop, a rabbit hutch, and a big fruit and vegetable garden in the backyard. Her father worked for 39 years in the nearby county seat for Woodstock Diecasting. Harold helps out around the farm during the busy spring and fall seasons; he especially enjoys the plowing. The farm is truly an extended-family affair: his wife's strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry patches account for the market's signs that read "Grandma's homemade jams."
Mel ate a turkey sandwich while listening to the chirpy voice of WGN's Orion Samuelson report the latest farm prices. "I'm tying everything to what Skilling says at 12:30," he said, meaning that he wasn't locking in on a corn price until hearing the weather forecast. "Corn is still $2.25 a bushel, but our cost of production is about $2.00. We're walking a fine line between a big crop disaster and a respectable yield. Despite the drought, we still have about two-thirds of our normal yield. But we probably won't make all our expenses this year on corn."
Bobette once operated the neighborhood beauty salon down the hall in a room since converted to a modern farmer's window to the world. After lunch Mel went to the room to learn from a computerized news wire the latest on the Chicago Board of Trade grain prices and Boris Yeltsin's heart attack. This family business office is also where Mel moonlights each winter computing taxes for 75 clients. Bobette talks about supplementing the family's income through an off-the-farm job, but her husband discourages her, saying she already works hard enough.
A school-board member, Bobette gives tours of the family farm to area school kids each fall. "We let them pick pumpkins and gourds mainly to remind their parents where we are," Mel said, driving a pickup truck through the fields. The couple got Mike interested in farming when he was a boy by encouraging him to raise a few acres of pumpkins. This year's pumpkin patch stretches over 15 acres.
Mel surveyed the feed-corn crop, counting the number of stress spots, which would have poor yields. Then he pulled up next to a row of sweet corn, grabbed an ear, and peeled back the husks. "People judge sweet corn by the tip. If a tip worm got in there, only the top quarter inch might be bad. You really should feel the cob for spaces in the corn. If there are a lot, then you've got a pollination problem and a bad ear of corn."
Last summer's hot, dry weather hurt the corn yield, but it helped the melons, whose new flowers and foliage gave him hope for a second, late-fall crop. Passing by the pepper and tomato plants, which had black plastic bags underneath "to crank up the yields," he noted that frost alone doesn't kill off a garden. "It's the sun. If you hose them with water before the sunlight gets them, you'll be OK."
Mel had called a Crystal Lake hauler to come pick up the soybeans in a storage bin he needed for the corn Mike would begin harvesting later that afternoon. The soybean harvest had yielded a bigger crop than anticipated, and when Mel climbed a ladder to open a storage bin, the sound of 600 bushels of beans pouring into the grain truck clearly pleased him. A good frost scare would have driven the price up from $5.95 a bushel to about $6.20, but he couldn't afford to wait.
The grain hauler left, promising to return promptly for the remaining 250 bushels. Stooping slightly because of a pinched nerve in his lower back, Mel walked into the warehouse, shrugging his shoulders. "You can always deal with pain when there's more money," he said.
A neighboring farmer, Erling Nor, had come to help bunch Indian corn. The 75-year-old Danish immigrant had a thick mop of unkempt gray hair, a plug of tobacco in his unshaven cheek, a big belly, and a stooped back. He pulled two newspaper clippings from the pocket of his white T-shirt, one of which reported that an 85-year-old man was offering $430,000 for a child-bearing bride.
The lifelong bachelor cackled as Bobette rolled her eyes and said she didn't have time to read every clipping Erling gave her. She was in a corner of the warehouse near the door leading to the retail store, baking peanut-butter cookies in a microwave for the corn-bunching crew to eat during their break.
Erling and Harold hovered over a cookie pan, talking about how a possum claws a chicken, eats its head off, and then sucks the blood. Erling cackled some more. In a high-pitched, accented voice he recalled having once filled an equipment barn with carbon monoxide to kill a woodchuck, and another time having rushed into his henhouse to "pound the daylights" out of a raccoon with a hoe. Don't kill a skunk, he and Harold cautioned, unless you water it simultaneously with a garden hose. "This skunk was livin' in my manure spreader," Erling said, after describing how a gunshot solved the immediate problem. "But I didn't think the east end of my barn would ever quit stinkin'."
Flies were attacking another cookie batch when Michelle, a seventh-grader, walked in after a day at the Hebron Middle School. Her grandfather shook his head and said, "She used to sit on my lap, but eventually I'll be sitting on hers." While the Mexicans ate the cookies, Harold swept up the corn husks, sucked on his third cigar of the afternoon, and wondered where his son-in-law had gone.
Mike and his father were then standing inside the combine, checking the corn-head attachment. Four long, skinny legs stood in a row between the green tractor's huge black tires. The 200-hour corn harvest was about to begin.
Mike maneuvered through a yard filled with machinery, describing the new combine's latest safety feature. Since the corn-head attachment can consume a human body almost as efficiently as it consumes cornstalks, the engine goes off automatically if the driver's seat is vacated for five seconds. Farming is a dangerous occupation, especially on the edge of a metropolis where farmers must move equipment to increasingly scattered parcels of land. "The traffic here on Route 173 has gotten really bad in the last five years," he said. "People don't seem to understand that you can't drive a combine 55 miles per hour. Just turning into the driveway, I've had lots of close calls."
The mounting traffic didn't drive Clarence and Edith Heinkel out of Elk Grove Township in 1964. Mounting taxes did. Their farm at Elmhurst and Algonquin roads had been in the Linneman family--that of Edith's first husband--since the 1830s. With property taxes based on rising land values, the Heinkels realized that there was no point in farming just to pay the taxes. They sold out to a developer who built a gas station, a bank, and a restaurant. Much of the 55-acre parcel remains vacant. They retained a 10-acre strip and later sold it to United Airlines, which built its headquarters on a neighboring farm and turned its piece of the Heinkel farm into a parking lot.
The couple considered following friends who had relocated as far away as Beloit, Wisconsin. But Edith wanted to be nearer home, and they bought the 120-acre Mason farm near Elgin. The elderly Masons wanted to keep the farm, which was homesteaded in 1835, in the family. But their two daughters, who had married nonfarmers, weren't interested.
"We'd always had a vegetable stand, so I asked Mr. Mason how many cars drive along Randall Road each day," Clarence recalled. "He said 80 or 90. That was enough for me to have a little vegetable business."
Twenty-seven years later Clarence was sitting at the lunchroom table in the barn that serves as the storeroom for his grandsons' market. Farmers, he said, "never make money farming--they make money selling." Beyond the screen door, past the customers who milled about the rows of produce and just beyond a row of oak trees, 80 or 90 cars were whizzing north or south about every five minutes.
Change began to overtake this area about 15 years ago, when the opening of the Spring Hill Mall gave area farmland prices their first upward bump, to $3,000 an acre. Five years ago prices went crazy when the Illinois Tollway Authority constructed a half-diamond interchange on I-90. Eventually the Heinkels sold out for about $75,000 an acre.
Clarence is 78 years old. A white crew cut frames his square head, which sits like a block atop a thick, solid frame. He was not an easy sell when real estate brokers began knocking on his door offering to buy the old Mason farm.
"Most of them were rip-off artists," he said, noting that he and his wife had learned quite a bit in Elk Grove Township, when early $500-per-acre offers seemed like a gold mine to farmers whose ancestors bought the land a century before for one to three dollars an acre. "We'd seen these speculators before. They'd talk smart and big, but there was nothing behind them. All they wanted was an option, to tie up your land for as little as possible with the hope of reselling it. So this time we weren't impressed by anything. An industrial developer bought the first property along the interchange for about $15,000 an acre, then came to us. The buyer was very cute. He said 'This is what we can give you, and this is the timing we have to have.' Then he offered the same price. I laughed. He came back a year later, offered some more, and I laughed again. Our experience from the early 60s came in handy. No way were we going to take any iffy deal. It was either money in my hand or nothing. But ten different brokers got to be pretty persistent and practically ruined a year of my life."
The only firm offer was from an agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial. Kevin Tobin represented Matsushita Electric, the parent company of Panasonic, which had already purchased a farm on the other side of the tollway for a regional headquarters and distribution center. The company wanted the Heinkel farm for future use. Unlike the other prospective buyers, Tobin represented somebody who wanted to buy now and pay now.
Clarence didn't know that Tobin's client was a Japanese conglomerate, nor at first did Tobin. Matsushita had approached the commercial and industrial broker through a Dallas developer who used a pseudonym. A Coldwell Banker colleague assured Tobin that the client was legitimate. And when the Texan paid for two helicopter tours of the north and northwest suburban land market, Tobin decided that he wasn't being taken.
The realtor dressed down for his first meeting with Clarence--forgoing the usual shirt and tie for blue jeans and a flannel shirt--and went to the farm with hopes of bridging the cultural gap. "My experience of farmers as people is that they're relatively down-to-earth and easy to deal with, because they're not caught up in the superficiality which plagues the rest of us in commercial real estate," he said. "It was like shaking hands with a grizzly bear. Mr. Heinkel had worked all his life as a farmer, and within a few minutes I was genuinely interested in knowing his life story. I thought I'd probably learn from him."
The Heinkels wanted their two grandsons to be able to keep the 20-acre parcel where the farmstead and vegetable stand are located, and after a year of negotiations Tobin and the Texas developer made an offer the Heinkels were willing to accept. It involved a tax-deferred exchange, a land swap intended to hold down federal estate taxes. The buyers acquired a nearby 242-acre farm parcel the grandsons wanted, then exchanged it and several million dollars cash for the 100 acres that stand within a stone's throw of I-90.
"Mr. Heinkel is a good businessman who had a clear understanding of what he wanted and an ability to articulate it," Tobin said, adding that luck was on the farmer's side--he'd sold at the top of the market before the real estate slump hit.
Clarence remembered that as he was signing away the farm in a deal that made his family "set for life" his "heart was in his throat." But he decided he had to balance sentiment with good sense. "If I were a younger man, I'd have traded for more farmland further out and stuck with farming," he explained. "I'm not interested in this life-style. My goal has never been to make a lot of money."
Clarence was born in Rogers Park, one of six children. His father had a small cement and brickwork contracting business. Sunday outings in Cook County forest preserves stimulated Clarence's interest in nature, and during the Depression he lived and worked with relatives on a farm in Iowa. "We were out haying one day when my uncle said to his brother, 'Hey, let's play cards.' We took the horses back to the barn and went up to the house to play cards. It was the three of us and my aunt. In those days everything was homemade. She had homemade bread, cheese, and beer. I said to myself, if this is farming, then it's OK with me."
Randy Geich opened the storeroom door. "Grandpa, Grandma's on the phone." The Heinkels enticed their oldest grandson, now 33, to begin farming a decade ago by giving him a cornfield to work, then giving him an interest in the vegetable stand. Geich and his 27-year-old brother Gerald now run Randy's Vegetables. They have 80 acres in vegetables, and raise corn and soybeans on an additional 720 acres. The Geich brothers outwitted the area's most land-hungry town last fall. They had learned that Elgin, which surrounded them on three sides, wanted to forcibly annex their property. Instead they annexed their farm to Sleepy Hollow, which was on the fourth side, just two hours before the Elgin city council vote.
The brothers will be able to farm as long as they want, Clarence believes, because the real estate development slump is more severe than people realize. Of course moving equipment up and down Randall Road will become harder, especially when the tollway interchange is completed.
Edith Heinkel had called to ask Clarence to come help her baby-sit their great grandson, and he headed over to his late-model minivan. Nearby a stack of cornstalks hugged several thick-trunked oaks. Pumpkins were piled high in the middle of the big lawn, as if erupting from the earth. The fall bounty at Randy's Vegetables included mums, apples, cider, decorative corn, onions, peppers, and squash. For $4 a horse-drawn wagon would take people into the pumpkin patch to pick their own.
Clarence drove along the gravel driveway past the 1854 farmhouse he and his wife have always rented out. Rather than rehab the house when they moved, they built a new house in neighboring Sleepy Hollow. The old homestead, which is listed on the Dundee Township Historic Register, is bright yellow with white trim and sits amid 160-year-old oak trees, all of which are registered on a Kane County Highway Department list of obstacles that must be removed so that Randall Road--recently anointed the county's major north-south arterial highway--can be widened to four lanes.
The light blue minivan sped south. On Clarence's left was land that Kane County will not tamper with: the backyards of the Saddle Club Estates subdivision, which has pine trees that have been growing for less than a decade. He crossed Randall Road's westbound tollway exit and then its eastbound entrance. Two new Panasonic buildings stood to the southeast, beyond the round barn that Elgin preservationists managed to save. The Teeple family's legacy will become Panasonic's equipment shed. To the southwest, set back from I-90, stands the new First Card processing facility. Abutting the tollway is a farm owned by the Bartels family, a Schaumburg-area transplant; they're holding out for big corporate dollars.
Clarence drove two miles, then turned left on a newly paved street in west Elgin. Royal Boulevard divides the last remnant of flat cropland from a line of new houses known as the Valley Creek subdivision. Actually, there's a Tyler Creek nearby, but no valley. The new houses and town houses are laid out along curved streets. An occasional mailbox shaped like a miniature barn offers the only hint of what used to be.
Clarence parked on Lyle Street next to a newly sodded lawn and a new house that Sentry Homes shows to shoppers looking for vacant lots in a development that boasts 1,200 housing units and counting. He knocked on the town-house door where his second grandson, Gerald Geich, lives with his wife and son.
As Edith opened the door, cold air and the sound of a televised baseball game blasted out. Edith, who suffers from a bad case of arthritis, looked frantic. The 17-month-old was wailing in the background--filling in for the regular baby-sitter while the child's mother was at work was clearly more than Edith had expected. She turned down the TV and gave her great grandson a cookie. Then Clarence put the toddler in the crib, and eventually he cried himself to sleep.
The two then sat close together at the far end of the brand-new couch, and Edith described how her father, Berger Nelson, had arrived in Chicago from Sweden in the late 1800s. He worked as a Pullman shop carpenter until 1921, when the family moved to a north Cook County farm so that her brother, who suffered from a liver condition, could get fresh milk. In the mid 1920s she took the train each day from Glenview to Chicago's Carl Schurz High School. "It was either that or go to New Trier High School, because there were no schools in between," she explained, adding that her long train commute to school wasn't as unusual as the fact that she went to high school at all.
Her husband of 38 years hadn't heard the story and began echoing my questions. "What gave you the opportunity, honey?"
She was a good soloist and had won first place in a grammar-school singing contest. The prize--$25 in gold--bought plenty of school clothes and hope that she could get vocal training.
By marrying Ed Linneman in 1928, Edith became part of one of Elk Grove Township's pioneer families. She remembered that each August or September, when the Linneman clan turned their grapes into 50 gallons of wine, her brother-in-law would not allow any woman who was menstruating to be in the room for fear that she would make the wine spoil. The women's menstrual cycles apparently didn't matter during the winter hog-butchering season, when the making of blood sausage required them to spend hours stirring pots of blood to prevent it from coagulating.
After Ed Linneman died in the 1950s, Edith met Clarence Heinkel through his sister-in-law. The two exchanged glances as they remembered how the spark took hold.
"He bought this new car," she said.
"Oh, that's not the reason, honey," he said, laughing and tapping her knee.
No explanation followed. Instead they began talking about how much things have changed since all the farm kids sledded on Algonquin Road a few miles northwest of the Haberdecke dairy farm, on which O'Hare's main building now stands. It's even harder to believe that rural America dominated this region less than 50 years ago when the way it used to be is described in a sterile, pastel living room dominated by a wall-size electronic media shrine.
Edith recalled that the threshing season had united the rural neighborhood because families had to harvest their grain jointly. When her husband mentioned that the host farm was responsible for feeding everyone, his wife said gently, "You don't know much about it."
"I know all about it," he replied.
"You do?" she exclaimed.
"One farmer was always more progressive than the others," he said, his voice becoming louder and more excited. He described how the communal threshing patterns revolved around whoever had the newest machine. "Ten families would go from one farm to the next, threshing oats and wheat and barley. The first tractor had about as much horsepower as a lawn mower. Then the combine came in and killed all that good farming by eliminating all those big get-togethers."
She clasped his hand, shushing him, and said, "Neither of us were farmers."
"I am," he said.
"You were born in the city," she whispered.
"She got into farming before me," he said. "But I've been in it since the mid 30s. The best farming was really with horses, before the machines, when the plow was right under your seat. You heard it cut the roots, you heard the birds sing and all that jazz. We had some fun in Iowa. Those were some of the best years of my life."
Edith looked dismayed. "Oh, I'm going to cry."
"I said some of my best years, honey," he smiled, patting her knee again. "I didn't say all of them."
Allen Busse grew up across Busse Road from Edith Heinkel when she was a Linneman, but he belonged to a different church and therefore a different threshing circle. A half century later the persistence of Elk Grove Township's last farmer baffles Clarence Heinkel. "If he sold the farm and traded up for more land, he might be able to cover his estate taxes. But he holds out and holds out, and you wonder what he's holding out for."
Farm families of German descent inhabited much of Cook County for many years. The evidence remains on road signs: Mannheim, Landmeier, Linneman, Rohlwing. The Busses fared better. Busse Road, Busse Wood Reservoir, and Busse Forest Preserve were named after the turn-of-the-century Cook County board president who was a cousin of Allen Busse's grandfather. In 1938 20 Busse farm families lived in northwestern Cook County along Elmhurst, Algonquin, and Rand roads. The Randhurst shopping center now stands on some of that property, and only one Busse farm family remains.
The farm is not easy to find. Driving east on Higgins Road past Arlington Heights Road, I saw the large open field Allen said to look for but almost missed the driveway. The house stands near Higgins Road, across the street from a Lou Malnati's pizzeria. But it's secluded among tall trees and bushes, and I later learned that many local people don't realize the farm is there.
Behind the tired, olive brown shingled house is a barnyard cluttered with tools: old tractors and trucks, stacks of cut wood and bricks, bales of hay, a collection of tree stumps, piles of rocks, and a Dumpster partially filled with scrap iron.
Sitting down at Allen and Marge Busse's kitchen table, I felt like I was in the heart of farm country. The kitchen appliances and furnishings were plainly utilitarian, and the shelves were filled with bottles and gadgets that looked like they'd been there for decades. Permeating the air was a feeling of continuity, the sense of an unbroken connection to the land.
The 73-year-old house was built when Higgins Road was a dirt road located in what now is the median strip of a four-lane thoroughfare. After World War II, when Busse returned home from Europe in an Army uniform, he married his grammar-school sweetheart, Marge Scharringhausen, and began farming the land that his great grandparents bought in the 1840s.
"There are probably 15,000 people in Elk Grove Village who know that I'm the old farmer with the beard and overalls," said Allen, grinning. "Not long ago in the Dunkin' Donuts a three-year-old child pointed at me and asked his mother, "Is that a real farmer?' She ignored him. As he pulled harder and harder on her skirt, she became embarrassed almost to tears. But you know, even the manager of the Dunkin' Donuts told me that he wished I would sell this farm because I'm no good for business. Put a factory on this ground, and he might have 80 more customers a day."
The twinkle in his eyes vanished. "We have become DPs right in our own home," he said, his singsong voice suddenly booming. "You know what DPs are, don't you? Displaced persons. People from central Europe whose hometowns were severely bombed during World War II."
"All my friends and family are here," added Marge, a stern but frail woman. Her voice was so deep that on the phone I often mistook her for him. "We're used to the O'Hare planes and the traffic. Here I feel like I'm still in the country but close to all the suburban services. We could go out west of Rockford where the farm services are. The closest town might have 500 people, but no Dominick's, Jewel, or Eagle."
We sat around the kitchen table on a sunny afternoon two years ago February, sipping freeze-dried coffee and nibbling store-bought cookies. Over the sink, out the west window, I caught glimpses through the bare trees of another Higgins Road rush hour. The view out the south window is of the barnyard, then rows of nursery trees and acres of cropland, and then low-rise commercial buildings on Oakton Avenue. The shadows of planes flying only 800 feet overhead regularly crossed the panes of glass.
The Busses say they have never complained about airport noise, nor will they. "These people who come from Chicago for home values or for convenience have no reason to gripe," Allen said. "If anybody has reason to bitch, let it be me and Marge. But we're spoiled rotten here. Being the last true farmers, we have the best of both worlds. You get up and spend 14 hours a day working, and there's no way in hell that you're not going to make a living."
Realtors long ago calculated that the Busses' 72 acres--the last big undeveloped parcel in the O'Hare real estate market--totals 3.1 million square feet. Even with the current slow market--only two realtors have come calling on the couple in the last year--the land could fetch as much as $10 million. But Allen doesn't much care for realtors, one of whom told me, "He'd probably shoot us if it were legal."
"Why should I prostitute this farm?" Allen asked, noting that the numbers are never as big as realtors claim. "The son of a guns hound you like a dog after a rabbit, but I know that all that suspender snapping is poppycock. For one thing, you pay 71 percent estate tax when you're over $10 million. Then there are fees for annexation, stoplights, left turning bays, and now a real estate transfer tax. All of a sudden you're not talking about as much money. Besides, if I knew what I wanted to do with $600,000, I wouldn't be peacefully raising alfalfa on this land and chopping wood all winter long for $4 an hour. Yet I'm ostracized by many people around here for being that rich SOB."
Their second son had walked in the back door and was leaning against the wall. Now in his mid 30s, Tim Busse has made his own fortune buying and developing land. His older brother has a large concrete-recycling business. "Growing up, I had both ends of the stick," said Tim, a husky bald man with a thick black beard. "We started out as these poor, no-account farmers until the land appreciated in value. Then I was either a dumb farm kid or a rich SOB. You know, the values of the people who put the food on the table never get in the way of our digestion."
On a sunny June morning a year and a half later I found Allen Busse, a tall, lanky man, tossing bales of freshly cut hay off a wagon into the faded red barn built by his great grandfather. In January his wife had had a massive heart attack and died on the kitchen floor. The loss seemed to have hardened his resolve to stay put.
One reason he resists pressures to sell is the memory of the aunt who bequeathed the farm to him. She nearly starved during the Depression in order to hang on to this land. "Upstairs in the attic in a trunk I have everything that my great grandmother owned when she came over from Germany in 1847 on a sail ship," he said. "I never met her, but I learned the whole story at my grandfather's knee. She cooked for the sailors during the crossing of the Atlantic and met my great grandfather, who had been a cabinetmaker in Germany. They rented a farm in Addison Township until they got enough money together to buy a 48-acre tract farther north here in Elk Grove in the late 1860s. Then they bought 28 acres more and almost put this original 80-acre farm back together."
A wave of German immigrants pushed out many of the area's original settlers. "English, Scottish, and Irish New Englanders homesteaded these lands in the 1830s and moved on to Wisconsin or Iowa, invariably reinvesting in the earth," Allen said. "They wanted to get away from the congestion. They didn't want these Germans moving in, speaking a different language. That's what motivated it--racism."
The area's next wave of immigrants was motivated by the completion of the country's transformation from an agrarian to a suburban way of life. The farmers were like the Indians before them in that both were widely viewed as obstacles to progress, though the farmers were part of the value system that sees land as something to be owned. The federal government had granted homesteading farmers their land in the mid 1800s to encourage economic development--and a century later saw fit to remove the farmers for the same reason. The farmers directed most of their anger about their forced migration toward the array of governmental bodies that facilitated the rise of suburbia after World War II.
Many members of the farm community felt betrayed. "There were hundreds of truck farms and dairy farms on the incredibly flat and fertile land that became O'Hare Airport," Allen said. "The federal government condemned some of the farmers in 1942 so that Douglas Aircraft could build an assembly plant. Then, at the termination of the war, the farmers felt double-crossed, because the federal government had stipulated that when the state of emergency ended the land would revert to the farmers. Instead it reverted to the city of Chicago. I had an uncle who moved three times because of the expansion of that original Douglas plant. He felt like a goddamned turtle with a house on his back."
The construction of O'Hare and plans for the tollway created great development opportunities and of course the money needed to entice farmers to sell out. In the early 50s men from real estate development companies appeared, aggressively waving checkbooks, hell-bent on buying land.
"Centex, a Texas outfit that developed Elk Grove Village, wanted someone native who knew the land and the farmers," Allen said. "They found a local real estate man named Charles Hodlmeyer. Chick began coming around offering to buy my land. I always told him, 'No, I'm not willing to sell.' Chick worked around until he had bought up 2,000 acres. He moved his own people into farmhouses and trailer homes, then conducted a referendum to incorporate the village of Elk Grove. There were 51 votes cast, and 51 votes in favor."
The story of Elk Grove Village is similar to that of neighboring Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates, and many other suburbs nationwide that grew up after World War II, when automobiles made virtually everywhere accessible. Elk Grove was incorporated in 1956 by employees of Centex, which eventually bought ten square miles of Elk Grove Township farmland due west of O'Hare. The company then forged ahead with plans for a residential community and business park. Today Elk Grove Village is home to 33,409 people; its industrial park, one of the world's largest, houses nearly 3,000 shipping, warehousing, and manufacturing firms.
By the late 50s Elk Grove Township's once-thriving farming economy was disappearing, as farmers sold land that their ancestors had bought for as little as $1.25 an acre. "When the tollway started paying $2,000 an acre, this immediately established a bull market," Allen explained, adding that the higher prices provided leverage to farmers who were negotiating with other real estate people. "'The tollway's offering $2,000,' they'd say, 'so whaddayamean you're offering $1,500?' Only four years earlier Centex bought Marge's family's place along Arlington Heights Road for $800 an acre. Things were ballooning. Houses cost $17,500 or $18,500 and sold like hotcakes because people wanted out of the city. Centex had good salespeople and good ads, and they needed more land. They were paying $2,500, $3,500, $5,000. The figures became hard to turn down. There was a man named Winkelman who had already sold a small piece of land to the tollway commission. His farm was in the middle of where a contractor had a nine-mile stretch of tollway to build. So one day he's out in his field cultivating corn when this contractor, a fellow named Bill O'Neil, came up and offered him a security deposit for $10,000 an acre. Winkelman signed on the spot, dropped his cultivator, and drove home diagonally, corn flying in all directions. He went in the house and said, 'Mom, I sold.'
"All the while Chick was coming over and saying 'Allen, we'd like to have it.' 'I'm not ready,' I told him. 'You can stay too long.' 'Well,' I said, 'I'll play my cards. There's a possibility that my son will buy it.' Our two sons didn't have the inclination fortunately, and I didn't coax them.
"Early on we knew there was an opportunity for the few who stayed through the 60s and 70s," he said, noting that speculators and developers want to keep land in farming until construction begins in order to qualify for a lower tax rate. "People followed you down the road to work their land for free. At one time I was farming 400 acres of land and wasn't paying any rent. Most farmers didn't want to cart their equipment around in this traffic. One by one, those tracts of land have been developed, and I'm down now just to the home farm. Development isn't all bad for me. I do a lot of land clearing for them and then cut firewood all winter long. I sell big fir trees to a landscaper who sells them to corporate developments." The closest the Busses came to considering selling was when the Bears were thinking of moving to the suburbs in the 70s. They figured that if they had to give up the family heirloom, it might as well be to create a popular landmark.
The number of Cook County's farmers has dwindled to less than 50, who live mainly in the southern part of the county along Lincoln Highway near Will County. This vanishing breed operates differently than farmers did when their way of life dominated the landscape. Allen, for example, bought his last combine in 1956 and still uses it to harvest winter wheat. That crop and a rotation of hay, straw, and oats occupy about two-thirds of his land. Nursery stock, a favorite for farmers located near urban markets, fills several more acres, and Allen also keeps some chickens. But the remainder of the land generates income largely as rental storage in an area where space is at a premium.
"We ran a little vegetable road stand for 25 years and kind of enjoyed it," Allen said. "Then when they widened Higgins Road in the early 70s, we were sitting here with produce and no outlet for it. Like everything, you have to roll with the market. With all those horse farms around Barrington, we can get the market price of Wisconsin. But we're here where the market is. The man in Wisconsin has to ship his alfalfa and hay and straw."
The presence of a farm in the middle of suburbia can seem odd even to some of Allen's customers. "People are always dropping by to buy some bales of hay for their horses and asking, 'What do you do for a living?' They're standing in the middle of my ground, buying my hay, and I have to explain that I grew it. It reminds me of the story of two men who are hard of hearing. One of them has a fishing pole. 'Are you goin' fishin'?' one asks. 'No,' says the other. 'I'm goin' fishin'.' 'Yeah,' says the first one. 'I thought you were goin' fishin'.'"
Last November a flatbed truck stood in Allen's barnyard with 12 tall pine trees tied to it, their roots wrapped in burlap sacks. An old blue Ford sedan with the license plate "BUSSE" was parked near the back door. I walked past the long equipment barn; above its middle door was a small sign that read "O'Hare" and above that an upright horseshoe.
Allen was out back, chisel plowing a 15-acre field that had yielded a winter-wheat crop last July. He had planted the wheat in September and watched its spring shoots come up shortly after Marge died. This year he plans to plant oats in the field.
He emerged from the cabin of the tractor, which he bought used five years ago, the newest addition to his 11-tractor fleet. He was wearing blue overalls, a red-checked work shirt, and a grimy seed cap. He extended a hand blackened by oil and dirt, and said that he'd been "busy as a cat covering shit on a tin roof. He'd left the house that morning at a quarter to six, driving 55 miles to Harvard to buy a $40 coupler for the tractor, and hadn't started plowing until 10 AM.
Last summer's drought made for a mediocre farming season. "I lost my second and third cuttings of alfalfa," he said. "We did have a lot of rain early, but that doesn't do you any good. It's like eating a big meal and not eating for a week. The big meal doesn't do you much good by the end of the week."
Soon Allen was looking at the sky, saying he'd better get back to work. He climbed back onto the tractor. With one hand on the wheel he turned and looked back at the spot where the steel plow met the rich black earth. He accelerated the engine, and the red-and-white tractor belched a puff of blue smoke. The sound of it nearly disappeared when a United 747 thundered overhead.
In 1993 construction workers will expand Arlington Heights Road from four to six lanes and add a westbound exit on I-90. The plans for the interchange persuaded a national trucking firm that Allen's field would be a fine location for a terminal. "Consolidated Freight's realtor didn't have the balls to come to me," Allen said recently. "He came sideways through my son Tim. This goes back to September, when a man began following me down the street with a checkbook and hat in hand. The way I was before Marge died was 'Let someone else worry about these decisions.' But with Marge gone a year ago tomorrow, I'm the only one.
"My accountant tells me that when I cash in, the feds will want $3 million for my 72 acres. So I told the realtor that I needed $7 a square foot net. He didn't bat an eyelash. They've posted the escrow money and will pay me $4.7 million for 15 acres on the western edges of the land. Since then the Elk Grove Township Park District has climbed on the bandwagon, and they want 15 more acres of Oakton Street frontage. The advantage is tremendous for tax reasons."
Allen didn't want to sell, but seemed resigned to the notion that he would own a much smaller farm. "My rows will be shorter and I'll come in for lunch earlier," he said. But several weeks later he reported a change of heart. His two sons had decided that they could handle the finances when he died, and he had decided to let the trucking company have its earnest money back.
He once told me that if he had died before Marge, she certainly would have had to sell the farm. But he intends to keep going along the same as always. "When I die, this farm dies."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.