"All Roads Lead To Chicago"

Town and Country

The dominant Midwest metropolis has had a significant impact on agriculture through the years.

Published on: March 15, 2013

This week has been filled with Master Farmer Award programs, and many recipients have reflected on how they started farming and the changes they've seen in agriculture through the years. Lately, I've written a lot about how the city and agriculture are interconnected, but Chicago and its history may be one of the best examples.

While driving through Illinois to the Prairie Farmer Master Farmer program with executive editor Frank Holdmeyer, I noticed the numerous machinery manufacturers in places like Peoria and Bloomington. While not directly in the city proper, the region surrounding Chicago, or the hinterland, still shows how, in William Cronon's words in Nature's Metropolis, "in modern times, all roads lead to Chicago."

The connection the Midwest metropolis and its surrounding area have with farm equipment manufacturers and the history of how the inventors established themselves is a perfect example of the urban to agriculture connection. Many came from east – Cyrus McCormick came from Virginia and moved to Chicago while John Deere left Vermont to set up a blacksmith shop in the now unincorporated village of Grand Detour, Illinois. President of the Illinois Farm Bureau, Phillip Nelson actually mentioned this during his speech at the Master Farmer program.

The notion of "starting over out west" seems to have been fairly common during the 1800s. John Deere moved to Illinois for a fresh start during the Panic of 1837. Like many others during this time, he was in debt and moved to Grand Detour, which was then a frontier town, according to Yellow Steel: The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry by William R. Haycraft. McCormick on the other hand didn't move until the mid-1840s after several visits to the Midwest. When he moved to Chicago, it had also seen the impact of the economic situation and had a population of about only 10,000 at the time, according to Cyrus Hall McCormick: his life and work, by Herbert Newton Casson.

Despite the risk involved, both made the decision to move to the Midwest, near or within the now sprawling city of Chicago. As Casson's book points out, the Board of Trade hadn't even been established yet, but with connections like these, it's no wonder Chicago became a key location for agriculture despite its size.