Back when West Chicago was a railroad town surrounded by farms, many people grew their own food. While that is less true today, a desire for sustainable living and healthy food free of additives has fueled a new interest in locally grown produce.
The West Chicago City Museum hopes to encourage that interest with its exhibit "Earth to Table," which opens Saturday, April 20, at 132 Main St. Part artwork, part artifacts, the exhibit looks at West Chicago's history as a gardening community and offers resources for those seeking locally grown food today.
If you goWhat: "Earth to Table" exhibit on West Chicago's agricultural history
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, April 20 to May 25
Where: West Chicago City Museum, 132 Main St., West Chicago
Info: (630) 231-3376 or www.westchicago.org/museum
"I would hope people would be inspired to grow their own food and think a little more about where their food comes from," said West Chicago artist Anni Holm, who curated the art portion of the exhibit.
Settlers started moving into the area that became West Chicago in the early 1830s, but farming really got under way in the 1850s after the railroads came through, said Sara Phalen, director/curator of the West Chicago City Museum.
"There was so much open land for farming," Phalen said. "In the 1800s, there were over a thousand farms in DuPage County."
A few of those farms have been preserved. such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago, now operated by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Even settlers who didn't farm often had large gardens like the one at the Kruse House Museum, now maintained by the West Chicago Garden Club, Phalen said.
Visitors to the exhibit will be able to see old farm implements such as a planter from the 1840s, Native American pottery shards and China used in railroad dining cars. They'll learn about the Victory Gardens of World War II; the Ball Horticulture Company gardens that have been an institution in West Chicago for decades; and the mushroom farm that Campbell Soup Company operated in West Chicago from the 1940s to the 1990s.
West Chicago's large Mexican population originally came to town to work on the railroads, but they were also drawn by jobs on the mushroom farm, Phalen said. Today the town's Mexican grocery stores sell a lot of fresh produce, she said.
Copies of newspapers from the 1960s reflect the interest in sustainability emerging then.
The exhibit is scheduled to be open during West Chicago's annual Blooming Fest from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 18, a downtown garden festival that includes a plant sale.
"We get a lot of people through the door at Blooming Fest," Phalen said.
Blooming Fest is only one sign that West Chicago retains an active interest in gardening, she said. We Grow Dreams Greenhouse and Garden Center, which provides employment to people with disabilities, operates in West Chicago, as does Pure Prairie Farm co-op.
Consumers in the co-op pay ahead to receive a weekly share of fresh fruits and vegetables during the growing season.
Holm said visitors to the exhibit also will be able to learn about West Chicago's community garden, where they can rent a plot to plant, and get information on canning.
"People used to can their own vegetables," Holm said. "In the past, everybody had a garden."
The exhibit runs through Saturday, May 25. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free. For information, contact (630) 231-3376 or www.westchicago.org/museum.