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    An outdoor history museum in Naperville welcomes The Chicago Farmers

    The Chicago Farmers were transported back to the mid-19th century when Summer Tour 2017 took the group to Naper Settlement in Naperville, Illinois. A perfect summer day, delicious lunch, and charming Naper Settlement staff members showed TCF what industry and agriculture were like in the area the last 180 years.

    Our hostesses for the day were Debbie Grinnell, Vice President, Advancement and Campus Development, and Donna Sack, Vice President, Community Engagement and Audience. Ms. Grinnell noted that she and Ms. Sack had attended Chicago Farmers meetings over the last year and very much they enjoyed them. They also participated in TCF’s visit to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences last summer.

    “We wanted to be able to offer something in return to The Chicago Farmers and we thought a visit to our site would do that,” said Ms. Grinnell.

    She noted that Naper Settlement sits on 12 of the 212 acres donated to Naperville in the 1930s. Caroline Martin Mitchell, the daughter of George Martin, a successful 19th century businessman, deeded the acreage and the Martin family Victorian mansion that was built in 1883, to Naperville with the understanding that the property would be put to good use for the community and that the mansion would become a city museum. Hence, a hospital, schools, river walk, cemetery, municipal buildings, and Naper Settlement now sit on the property that at one time was the Martin’s farmland and rock quarry pit. Today, the Martin mansion and 30 buildings and ancillary sites features “allow Naper Settlement to tell the story of an agrarian community that transformed into a technoburb,” said Ms. Grinnell.

    And, indeed, there is an audience for the story. Thirty-five thousand teachers and students from 12 rural, suburban, and urban counties in Illinois annually visit Naper Settlement in addition to the many other visitors that are split evenly between Naperville and other suburbs.

    Naper Settlement, which serves as an outdoor history museum, operates on a $4.5 million budget; $3 million of which comes from the City of Naperville with the remaining $1.5 million raised by the Naperville Heritage Society. This fundraising arm was created in 1969 when a group formed to save St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Naperville from demolition. The church held its first service in 1865. The group raised enough funds to salvage the wooden Gothic Revival church and have it moved to the grounds of the Martin Mitchell Mansion. The church was renamed Century Memorial Church and has been restored to look as it did in the 1870s.

    After lunch, our group left the visitor center, which houses a temporary exhibit reflecting on the Naperville community’s agricultural roots on the first floor and a permanent exhibit on Naperville’s settlement and town development in the lower level. We then went outdoors to tour the museum and view the historic buildings that dot the Naper Settlement site. A blacksmith, the Naperville Clarion Print Shop and Paw Paw Post Office are among the first buildings that are encountered as visitors begin a leisurely stroll around the grounds. “Interpreters” educate visitors on the work of the blacksmith, relate how a newspaper of 1869 printed the news, and share details about the early days of the postal system and the fact that Naperville was a stop on the stage coach route. Young teens and children dressed in period garb can be seen around the post office playing games that children of that era would have played.

    As the walk moves on, visitors continue to be transported back in time and immersed in history. A stop at an 1830s log cabin that originally stood in Jonesboro, Illinois, allows visitors to interact with two children performing children’s tasks of the 1800s – churning butter and carding wool to prepare it for the spinning wheel. The adult “interpreter” talks about farming of the period. He noted, for example, that the 19th century farmer would produce 30 bushels of corn per acre and sell it for 30 cents a bushel, which would be $30 today. Similarly, the farmer produced about 24 bushels of wheat per acre and sold it for 80 cents per bushel, $80 in today’s terms.

    The walk along winding paths takes visitors past a Conestoga covered wagon that transported pioneers westward in the 19th century, a reconstructed one room school house from the 1840s that originally stood at Route 59 and 83rd Street, an 1843 home known as the “halfway house” because it stood halfway on the route between Naperville and Aurora, and the beautifully restored Martin Mitchell Mansion. But there is still more to see: a farm cellar, smokehouse and windmill from the 1900s, the Century Memorial Chapel, the Murray Building, which was a residence and business dating from the 1840s in downtown Naperville, and more.

    While there is much to see at Naper Settlement today, the history museum has plans for the addition of an Agricultural Interpretive Center in the near future, Ms. Sack told TCF’s group. Currently, Naper Settlement is in the process of collecting artifacts, stories and funds for the $4 million center.

    “There is a story to be told about how Naperville shifted from an agricultural base to suburbanization as it welcomed industry and a more diverse population,” said Ms. Sack. “There is so much more to tell. Our goal is to continue to focus and enhance our conversation about the importance of history, social studies and civics.”

    The 5,000 square feet Agricultural Interpretive Center addition to Naper Settlement will be located close to the half-way house and will tell the story of agriculture from 19th and 20th and centuries in the context of agriculture today. It will show agriculture’s innovation through displays of past and present farm implements, facilitate discussions about the business side of agriculture and the skills that are needed to be successful, provide an ag-science learning lab for interactive activities, experiments and experiences, and the center also will include the story of women in agriculture, Ms. Sack said.

    “We want to excite children about working in agriculture and agriculture related professions,” said Ms. Sack. “Agriculture is a huge business in Illinois and the center will show that. The center will provide data that will inform conversations about the evolving science and business of food production today, and how agriculture will feed the world’s population of tomorrow.”

    TCF member Ray Brownfield is a long-time resident of Naperville and an ardent supporter of Naper Settlement and its plans for the Agricultural Center. “I have spent time talking with representatives of Naper Settlement about agriculture and where it is going,” Ray shared with TCF’s group. “We have talked about growing crops, GMOs and organic farming. I’m a stakeholder here. I believe the Agricultural Interpretive Center can become a destination for people to learn about agriculture. It is a very exciting endeavor.”