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Family's farm encompasses 222 years of U.S. history

Seven generations of Walkers have worked the same spread in southern Illinois. For many, it's a vanishing way of life. Not here.

May 11, 2008|Joel Hood | Chicago Tribune

PALESTINE, ILL. — Rob Walker is 28, and his brother, Michael, is 23 -- young enough to dream of life away from home but old enough to know they don't want to end up anywhere else.

The Walker men are farmers, just as their father was before them, as his father was and so on back to the early origins of Illinois. Seven generations of Walkers have farmed this land that hugs the Indiana border in southeastern Illinois, a familial thread that spans 222 years of American history.

The first Walker, Thomas, laid claim to the fertile property along the winding Wabash River in 1786. For centuries, family farms like this one shaped the American way of life and formed the backbone of the economy, but their numbers have dwindled in recent years as costs have soared and market conditions changed.

This is the oldest surviving family farm in Illinois, according to state records, and it is believed to be among the oldest in the country to remain in one family's name.

In contrast to those leaving agriculture behind, the Walker farm is thriving. It has grown over the years and modernized, and now has agreements in place to supply soybeans, corn seed and other crops to major food companies. More important, it has Rob and Michael, the next generation in a remarkable farming bloodline, looking not to their past but to the future.

"There's been times I've thought 'what if' and imagined doing something else," said Michael Walker. "It never went beyond that."

A warm wind blew in from the west on this spring day, rustling over the fanning waves of deep green grass and acres of upturned soil -- a sweet gift after so many hard months of winter. Rob and Michael stood in the center of the swirling breeze and contemplated what life might look like beyond this farm.

"I know a lot of people who make way more than I do," said Rob Walker, "but they don't like what they do."

Their father, Bob, had the same attitude when he was their age. The family history has always been a source of pride in the Walker household. One family member -- a daughter, Kate -- has moved away. The remaining four, the two boys and their parents, still live in the quaint, two-story white Gothic-style home with green trim, built on the edge of the property in 1889. But that history never carried much significance out in the field, they said, where warm weather and hard work were the difference between a good harvest and a bad one.

It's the boys' mother Jane, a schoolteacher and self-proclaimed history nut, who has done the most research into the family's past. She searched county records and old newspapers, and interviewed surviving family members to uncover the Walker lineage.

She later pushed to enroll in the state's Sesquicentennial Farms Program, which recognizes farms that have been in the same family for at least 150 years. More than 400 farms received that distinction since the program began in 2001, but officials said many were no longer in operation.

"Illinois' history is tied to agriculture," said Jeff Squibb, a spokesman for the state's Department of Agriculture. "But the number of people farming land has fallen below 2%, as it has all over the country. It's important to recognize the heritage of those who still remain."

Ever the humble Midwestern farmer, Bob Walker, 56, admits he is uncomfortable with that kind of recognition. He declined to say how big the Walker farm was for fear neighbors might think he was bragging.

Speaking of the industry as a whole, he said advancements in technology and fertilizers had allowed modern farmers to do things their predecessors never dreamed of. But the costs have grown in equal measure, which is why so many farming families struggle each year to make ends meet.

"A lot has changed," he said. "But basically the stuff we worry about now is the same stuff they worried about back then."

South of Walker Farm is the village of Palestine, formed in 1811; it is the oldest incorporated town in Illinois. This "Pioneer City" of 1,500 still boasts square, red-brick 19th century buildings along Main Street and a downtown mural depicting its roots to colonial days. Palestine is where investor Robert Kinzie strolled into the land office in 1833 and plunked down $127 and change for the rights to 102 acres that later became the heart of downtown Chicago.

A four-hour drive south of Chicago, past communities such as Crooked Creek and Oblong, Palestine is a place where country music dominates the FM dial -- an area more in step with rural Kentucky and Indiana than Chicago and its collar counties. It's a place, as Rob Walker explains it, where boys push toy tractors in the dirt until they are old enough to drive a real one out in the field.

That's how it happened with the Walker men. Bob Walker said he didn't push Rob and Michael into farming. If anything, he pushed them away, encouraging them to "get a little polish on life" by going to college and pursuing other interests.

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