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The Landscape Vanishes

Touring McHenry County With Preservationist Nancy Fike

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Nancy Fike was driving along her favorite country road, lamenting that history has little importance in everyday life--until some old, taken-for-granted landmark is about to disappear. "Then people get all riled up and then they begin to put pressure on the government. Historic preservation should be a tool in land-use planning like economic development and tourism. But it's not. Anything that's been preserved here has been preserved by neglect."

As the McHenry County Historical Society Museum's administrator, the museum's sole paid staff person, Fike often makes her case at municipal and county government meetings. But this day she was maneuvering River Road--a winding, two-lane ribbon of concrete some 80 miles northwest of the Loop--identifying the unsung landmark of the hour as the rural landscape itself. Landscape preservation, quite the buzzword among preservationists these days, is, according to Fike, "saving not just one individual structure but the setting it was in."

Although McHenry's land remains largely agricultural, especially out here in the western part of the county, the place is turning into an extension of the northwest suburbs. With scores of home buyers escaping gridlocked towns like Arlington Heights and Schaumburg, McHenry has become second only to Du Page as the fastest growing county in Illinois.

"Most farmers will tell you that McHenry County is pretty well lost," Fike said. "Now they're escaping west into Boone County. But if Rockford gets back on its feet, we'll get squeezed on both sides."

On the so-called urban fringe, the rural landscape vanishes gradually. "A new house moves into a farm field but you still look around and see a farm field," she said. "People don't necessarily look at the larger picture, which is that there are encroachments on farm fields all over McHenry County. But when you start adding them all together, pretty soon the landscape is gone."

If Illinois had historical designations for roads, like Wisconsin's rustic road system, Fike believes River Road would be a perfect candidate. "There's an opportunity here to see so much of local history in the physical structures that are still standing. But we're to the point where you have to be able to recognize these things. The one-room schools have been turned into homes. The farmhouses from the 1850s and before have been added on to, so you have to be able to recognize the basic structure. And you have to know enough about local history to know the road curves and swings following along the lines of the timberline."

Acre after rolling acre of cultivated land is punctuated by barns, silos, and hand-painted signs advertising hay, oats, straw, pumpkins, squash, and pheasant. Far more numerous than the houses on farms are the houses on lots in the 1-to-20-acre bracket, whose owners probably work at desks in the suburbs, Chicago, or Rockford. Many of the houses have No Dump signs in their front yards, reflecting the area's hottest issue--landfills. The McHenry political apparatus hasn't figured out quite what to do with the growing county's growing mounds of garbage.

Fike interprets the controversy as a classic example of a generation trying to make sense of the here and now. This environmental concern might rate as a subplot in the last chapter of what she imagines as one of those five-generation-long James Michener novels. White settlers planted roots here in the 1830s when Scottish farmers, wanting no part of the crowded city, chased off the Indians and began cultivating the fertile soil along the Kishwaukee River. They built their homes to the north, near forests providing a plentiful supply of wood.

Fike parked her van next to a barn and walked in looking for someone to give us permission to hike up to a cemetery where many settlers were buried. A farmer named Max Wilson emerged, and between puffs on a pipe he directed us through a maze of electrified fences.

"If you know what you're looking for, you can spot this cemetery from miles away because of the band of pine trees that's up here," Fike said, while hiking through the oak leaves, dodging the fresh cow patties along the trail. "You stand up on a windswept hill and can kind of take yourself back a century to what these people might have seen. Except for the noise of Route 23, you could pretty well imagine what your life might have been like if you came with Patterson and Pringle back in the early years of the last century--and some of the hardships that the Stuarts and the Redpaths might have gone through."

Hardship, of course, is relative. Fike's daughter Lee, a seventh-grader who hates history as much as she hates having to spend days off from school cleaning the museum's bathrooms, flitted among the 50 or so dilapidated gravestones trying to keep warm.

Local history buffs may restore some of the county's abandoned graveyards, most of which are tucked away on unused corners of farms. "The problem is," Fike explained, "when you start tinkering with these small cemeteries, what you end up with is an invitation for vandals who might not have known that they were there to suddenly come and vandalize the stones and steal them."

As we returned to the bottom of the hill, we came upon a small herd of Herefords that spend a good part of their lives dumping all over the burial grounds of some of McHenry County's founders. Lee approached the cows, delighted but hesitating a bit. She asked if she could touch them. Fike said no and as we continued on our way, conceded that her child, like so many others, knows almost nothing about farming.

"In 1978, when the museum began offering school tours, about half the children knew about agricultural equipment," said Fike, a 47-year-old native of the town of McHenry (her father worked as a printer in Chicago). "But in recent years, the schools have removed agriculture from their curricula because we're not an agriculturally based economy anymore. Today, less than 5 percent of the children who visit the museum know anything about farming. Very few raise their hands when asked if their grandparents were from McHenry County."

Old farms clash with new on the western stretch of River Road. A drafty wood barn sags next to two old red brick silos. Across the road, looming like an alien, is a shiny complex of conveyor belts and aluminum-sided grain storage bins.

Barns and silos are vanishing from the rural landscape, one more sign that the county is no longer one of the largest dairy producers in the United States. Silos, invented by a McHenry farmer in 1873, are airtight structures designed to keep fodder moist during the winter when cows are unable to graze. Nowadays, with the raising of crops having supplanted livestock as the focus of the local economy, farmers are replacing these twin symbols of rural America with cheaper metal sheds.

Also disappearing is the round barn, which doesn't store big modern machinery nearly as efficiently as it stored a herd of dairy cows. McHenry's last one, built in 1897, stands at the far western end of River Road. "I imagine that in those days this was good for a farmer," said Rudy Calzavara, a national rodeo company operator who bought the 35-acre farm in 1984. "You could have had the same amount of cattle [as in a rectangular barn] but without walking 120 feet. No matter where you start in this barn you can walk back around and you're right back where you started from. It's not like you have to walk clear to one end and back. That's about the only advantage I can see."

Calzavara, whose cap, jacket, shirt, pants, and boots were covered with cobwebs, didn't know his spider-infested barn was unique to McHenry. He walked Fike through its circular floor plan from the lower level where the cattle stay up to a second floor where hay is stacked. She was mighty pleased to finally get inside this sturdy barn, almost as pleased as Lee was to see the tour end at the Boone County Line Road.

"I'm not against change, the people that we're trying to revere at the museum were certainly moving ahead," said Fike. "But through historic preservation we can capture a feeling for a time from the past that helps people better identify with the place where they live."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Heuer.

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