Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dr. Ryan's Round Barn

By all accounts Laurence Ryan was quite a character. Born in Seneca, IL. he was raised on a farm near what is now Johnson Sauk Trail state park. He went to Loyola university to become a doctor and trained in both Berlin and Vienna. He became a well known brain surgeon in Chicago and served as dean of the Loyola medical school. He bought bought 320 acres near his boyhood home of Kewanee to build a country getaway from this city and set about fulfilling on of his many dreams, importing Black Angus show cattle from Scotland. But he had another dream in mind to attempt. He wanted to build a Barn.

 On a recent outing I took Lil' Nick and Kimberly and we went to Kewanee to see The big round barn for ourselves.  Beginning in 1908 and finishing in 1910 at a cost of $9,600 (Almost a quarter of a million dollars in today's money!) the barn was considered state of the art at the time of its completion. It stands 61 feet high and 74 feet in diameter with a ten foot cupola on top. The center silo stands 80 feet high and is 15 feet across, capable of storing up to 250 tons of loose hay. Local legend has it that the wood for the barn was soaked overnight in a local pond to make the wood pliable enough to bend though large vats seems more likely.

There are many theories Why the barn is round instead of square. A round barn meant for easier working in feeding and maintaining the cattle, a round barn is stronger in extreme wind conditions (think Tornado) and superstition has it that the devil couldn't find a corner to hide in with a round barn. For all it's innovation however, the round barns were doomed when farm machinery became larger and the barns couldn't accommodate them.

Though Dr. Ryan died in 1939, the barn continued to be used for cattle until the late 1940's and in 1967 the estate was sold to the state which tore down all the farm buildings except the barn. In 1974 the barn had the distinction of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1984 a group of local citizens formed the Friends of the Johnson Park foundation for the express purpose of saving the barn.

I was in Geneseo a few days ago and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Steve Christian, who provided me with some background information on the barn as he is the president of the group responsible for keeping it up. Before we met my information was this was the largest round barn in the state. After speaking to him however I learned this is actually the largest barn of this type in the Country!
The barn is now used as a museum of vintage farm equipment and is open to the public May through October. It is located about a mile inside the entrance to the Johnson Sauk Trail park and you'll see it on the left side as you approach. There's ample parking and sidewalks around the structure. So if you are ever bored it's well worth the drive.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Back to Van Petten

Last week I told you to story of Van Petten Illinois and the remarkable couple that still reside there. In addition to their duties as Mayor and Chief of Police, Dave and Babe also have a museum on site. Filled with treasured mementos of a life spent together as well as artifacts found around the area and former town. Taking up an entire room it is jam packed with everything one could imagine.

There's a lot of blacksmith material as both Dave and Babe are accomplished smiths. There's even a reproduction of a John Deere plow, historically accurate down to the number of threads in the bolts! Above the museum is the Library, filled near to bursting with books and journals of the area and local history in general.  They couldn't remember if they 7000 or 9000 books upstairs, they had lost count.  There's also a large white board upstairs where visitors have signed in to commemorate their  stop at this unique spot.  I made sure to have Lil' Nick sign our names to show we had passed thru.  We are truly blessed in that our state is chock full of interesting places like Van Petten for us to enjoy, relate to, and pass on to future generations.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Who's heard about Van Petten Illinois?

 Located along the railroad tracks in rural Lee county is the town of Van Petten. It's a quiet little place, not much traffic to ruin your day and on the day I visited I even got a kiss from the Chief of Police!

A.G. Van Petten founded the town back in 1901 and started attracting settlers and in no time at all the town boasted a lumber yard, a grain elevator, a general store, a train station and a few houses. But despite the promise of prosperity every town along the tracks wished for Van Petten never really took off. And in 1931 the post office closed, effectively dooming the town....or so you would think.

Five years after the post office closed Leroy Henry purchased the land to get a farmhouse, only learning afterwards that the town came with the sale! And in the same spirit that's driven many a mid westerner he kept the town charter active, eventually passing it along to his daughter and son in law.

Babe and Dave Brandon are both in their mid eighties now and enjoy the best kind of city government one could ask for. Every six months one is the Mayor and then trades to become the Police Chief. The Brandon's have led pretty colorful lives themselves.  They met when they were just kids back in the 1930's grew up near one another. They lost track during grade school but reconnected in their late teens and in 1950 became husband and wife.  In the late 70's they moved to Montana and ran a general store, an orchard, they volunteered for the fire department and during one of the big fires Babe even got her picture in Life magazine.

In 2006 they moved back to Illinois and took up their current duties as the senior administrators for the town. They don't have a police car, but they Do have a fire truck, having purchased a retired one from nearby Harmon. They also have Babes first car, a vintage Ford model A that her father bought in 1949 for the princely sum of 100 dollars.

If you're ever up that way and you happen to be driving by consider stopping for a moment and posing for a photo next to the town sign. And if Babe or Dave are outside honk and wave. Many thanks to Kimberly Watley for introducing me to this charming couple!