This article corresponds to the Jersey County Fair Agriculture Education Center's 200 Years of Jersey County Agriculture Exhibit, highlighting several of the major periods of change and development for the agriculture industry in the county.
The Twentieth Century presented new challenges and opportunities to rural communities, ushering in the highest and lowest points in American agricultural history. For example, there was the Golden Age of American Agriculture, a period between 1909 and 1914 marked by high demand and high prices in farm products and land values. But, following the First World War, overproduction led to a farm crisis that lingered through the Great Depression. Today, the Golden Age of American Agriculture continues to outshine all succeeding eras, as no other period has come to improve upon it. Another example regards the number of farms. The peak number of American farms was 6.8 million in 1935 but sharply declined after that. The number of farms continued to decline at a slower rate as the latter decades of the century wore on. The decline continues into the present time, as the number of American farms in 2007 was 2.2 million, but decreased to 2 million by 2022 (USDA, 2023). Despite the hardships embraced by American farming families, important advancements were made regarding collective action and access to education that directly impacted rural families in Jersey County.
The Jersey County Farm Bureau was established in 1918, two years after the founding of the Illinois Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau provided educational resources and expertise through a county advisor hired to help farmers learn and navigate new methods, practices, and technologies. The Farm Bureau proved indispensable in protecting farmers' interests in establishing local co-ops and partnerships, lobbying on behalf of farmers, recommending insurance policies, and even supporting local initiatives for the war effort during the First World War, among other accomplishments.
The Cooperative Extension System, known colloquially as the Extension, was organized in 1914 in accordance with the Smith-Lever Act. In the early days of the Extension and Farm Bureau, it was hard to distinguish between the work of the two separate organizations because both provided educational resources to rural communities. The Extension was so named because it was an extension of land grant universities and state experiment stations. Agricultural experiments and research were conducted at the experiment stations, and their findings were taught to agriculture students at land grant universities nationwide. County agents employed as Extension personnel shared these findings and demonstrated
how to apply them to communities they were sent to assist. Today, the Extension is viewed as the go-to resource regarding education. The Farm Bureau is regarded for its advocacy and lobbying efforts, and both are still well represented in Jersey County.
The most popular arm of the Extension is its youth development arm, the 4-H organization. Records at the Jersey County Historical Society show that 4-H was present in the county since the 1920s, if not earlier. One of the critical assumptions of the 4-H movement was that farmers were unwilling to change the way they've always done things around the farm because "the unknown" was dangerous. So, farmers were encouraged to devote an acre or half-acre to their sons, who were taught new methods in 4-H club
meetings and encouraged to apply them to the small patch their fathers allowed them to farm. Of course, the 4-H did so much more. It encouraged the revitalization of the rural American spirit in the hearts of country youth and encouraged them to pursue excellence in their endeavors.
The introduction of the Farm Bureau and Extension wasn't too far ahead of another educational development of momentous consequence. Since the start of the 1900s, there was a push to introduce vocational courses in high schools that would prepare students for careers in home economics, agriculture, and the trades. This movement was captured in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which provided federal aid for just that purpose. This movement was observed early at the Jersey Community High School, where the 1917 yearbook features photographs of the manual training room and domestic science kitchen. Additionally, early yearbooks show that an agricultural club for boys existed as early as
1920. In fact, the 1920 yearbook shows pictures of an agricultural classroom and a swine feeding experiment. This agricultural club flourished throughout the decade until it transformed into the Jerseyville FFA Chapter in 1929, which was chartered only one year after the formation of the Future Farmers of America in Kansas City, Missouri.
Indeed, the post-war years in Jersey County were exciting despite national rural economic realities. While post-war agricultural education and advocacy initiatives continued gaining traction, Oscar B. Hamilton was publishing his 1919 History of Jersey County, Illinois. In his work, Hamilton describes the mechanical advancement he observed in the county in his lifetime, writing:
"The first McCormick handrake reapers were brought by canalboat to Grafton in 1849, and were in use for several years. A man rode on the machine and raked the grain from the platform in bundles, and six or seven binders were given stations around the field to bind the bundles, and two men followed to place the bound bundles in shocks. The introduction of these machines greatly increased the acreage of land cultivated in wheat. These were followed by the dropper. Later came the selfrake, then the wire, and finally the twine-binder, which, in its latest improved condition, we have now. A wonderful development from the reaphook and five-fingered cradle. The improvement in drills for sowing, and separators for
threshing, having kept pace with the reapers" (1919).
As the late 1800s progressed to the 20th Century, local agents for agricultural equipment companies were selling equipment to their friends and neighbors. Equipment was advertised in local newspapers, advocating for their improved efficiency and scope of popularity. One advertisement bragged that Jersey County farmers had already bought 150 plows of a particular model. Another ad for a corn harvester stated that 20 had been sold in Greene and Jersey counties. As the 1900s progressed, as were automobiles, tractors became increasingly more common on area farms. The Wedding Garage opened for business in 1918. It was the first auto dealership in Jerseyville and sold Ford cars and the Fordson tractor. Today, it houses the DK Dance Studio and Lorton Lofts studio apartments. Charles Ringhausen, of the old apple-growing family of Calhoun and Jersey counties, even dealt equipment for orchards. As the decades carried on, new businesses sold a broader variety of brands, including Allis-Chalmers, Massey-Harris, Rumely, Oliver, Case, McCormick-Deering Farmall, and others, enticing farmers at open houses,
local on-site farm demonstrations, and while on display at the Jersey County Fair.
Agribusiness evolved in other respects. In 1898, William A. Rice opened the W.A. Rice Seed Company, which the family still owns and operates. The company founder invented the "Dodder Mill," a seed-cleaning machine designed to separate noxious weed seeds from tiny seeds such as clover and alfalfa. According to a newspaper clipping housed in the company file at the Jersey County Historical Society, the machines have been sold to companies like Heinz and Campbell Soup and around the world to buyers in England, Turkey, Iran, France, Germany, and elsewhere. Another business that grew deep roots in the
local agricultural community was the Updike Milling Company. Though not the only business concern of its type in the area, Updike's was established in 1920 in the building once used by local inventor and farm equipment manufacturer Robert Newton. It was in the building bought by Clarence Updike and his partner A.J. Schattgen that the first seated gang-riding plow was manufactured, having been invented by Frederick Davenport of Jerseyville in the 1800s.
Grain elevators continued to service local farmers and were located throughout the area, even in small communities like Kane and McClusky. In 1931, local farmers established a co-op, the Jersey County Grain Company, which still exists today. Its two locations in Hardin and Jerseyville handle millions of bushels of grain each year. Local hatcheries, dairies, creameries, and butchers continued to furnish a market for area farmers, supplying local and regional markets. Even agricultural manufacturing was represented in the county during the middle decades of the century. Baughman Manufacturing Company produced lime and fertilizer spreaders, among other products. Located east of Jerseyville, it opened local operations in 1939 and continued until the business was sold in 1969.
In 1964, local resident Adolph Schulz wrote an article describing county agricultural conditions: "Wheat, soybeans and apples are the most important cash crops while corn, oats and hay are the major feed crops. Corn, however, is the most important crop in the county today, it is used principally as a livestock feed. Soybeans is the most important cash crop followed by wheat as a close second." At the close of the century, corn would remain the most important crop, followed by soybeans.
One final development worth noting is the arrival of the Bayer Research Facility immediately south of Jerseyville. Originally Monsanto, the research farm opened in 1984. "Besides being the spot where the world's first biotechnology field trial on tomatoes was done in 1987, it is also where the first field trials with Roundup Ready soybeans were done that same year" (Borman, 2008).
The era of the 20th Century saw the most significant advancements and worst setbacks in the history of American agriculture, all of which were embraced in some measure by farmers in Jersey County. Though great strides were taken in agricultural education and political advocacy, broad-sweeping socioeconomic changes were difficult to cope with. Today, agriculture continues to have a substantial impact on the area. Though the number of farms is fewer, rural culture permeates the county and expresses a significant portion of its identity. It's hard to capture local agricultural history in a single article due to
the innumerable changes that occurred, especially in a turbulent century. Nevertheless, it should be understood that Jersey County has a deep and rich agricultural heritage, well-supplied by historical events and changes that continue to define us today.
Borman, M. (2008, November 8). Historic growth: monsanto center home of world’s first biotechnology field trial. The Telegraph.
Hamilton, O. B. (1919). History of Jersey County, Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company.
Schulz, A. (1964). Agriculture and Industry. In Jersey County Quasquicentennial (pp. 7–7). essay.
United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). The number of U.S. farms continues slow decline. USDA ERS - Chart Detail. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58268#:~:text=After%20peaking%20at%206.8%20million,sharply%20until%20the