Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The Pioneer Farmers

By the time Van Buren County was settled in the 1830s and 1840s, the idea that pioneers did not think the flat prairie would make good farming land was a myth.

Earlier in the history of this country, when pioneers first encountered the treeless prairies of Indiana and Illinois, this idea was popular. Explorers and fur traders had noted that across the Great Plains very little could be grown for several reasons. The harsh climate produced high winds that removed top soil, including plants and crops. A lack of water, particularly during late summer months and intense boiling heat baked and dried up crops quickly.

A popular belief was that the reason the prairie was treeless as far as the eye could see was that the land contained little value in terms of crop production.

It was soon learned that many crops could survive the dry spells on the prairie and the soil was rich and very suitable for farming. The problem was finding water sufficient for the household and for livestock. Sometimes springs were located that provided enough water; other times water had to be carried several miles from the closest streams.

Ralph Arnold said that it was amazing how the first settlers of the region passed over the flat treeless land to settle in the timbered hills near streams. Two of the reasons why Des Moines, Henry, Lee and Van Buren Counties were settled first, ahead of counties containing mostly prairie, is that both water and timber were available in abundance.

It was necessary to have protection from the harsh winter weather and the boiling sun of summer, and the abundance of wood for construction of buildings was desirable for this purpose. The convenience of close water made life easier.

Clearing the forest was difficult and back-breaking, but the soil was much easier to tend and took less power to cultivate once the stumps and roots were removed. Fuel was close at hand. Cabin furniture could be made from the same sources, and rail fences were easily constructed around the crop fields for protection.

In western Illinois, nearly all of the trees including the timber lots were planted by early settlers, who eventually did settle on the flat prairies. But this was not the case in Van Buren County, which was 60-75% timber-covered when the white settlers first arrived. Due to farming methods, much of the timber had disappeared by the 1920s, but since then--particularly during the past fifty years--the percentage of timber land has increased dramatically due to reforestation and nature preserves that provide most residents with a rich, country setting.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick