Harold Bergman of Hoffman Estates will take a rare day off from his chores today, but for good reason. Village leaders have declared it Harold Bergman Day.
"It's pretty neat," Bergman concedes.
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Bergman turned 97 years old on June 1 and at their last board meeting, village leaders issued a proclamation, dedicating today in his honor.
"His family has played an important part in the development of Palatine Township and in Hoffman Estates," says Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod. "We felt it was appropriate."
Bergman gets a chuckle out of all the attention. He has spent nearly his entire life on the farm -- he was born in the 1880s farmhouse his grandfather built on Algonquin Road just west of Ela Road -- and quietly worked its acres of fields.
He still drives the tractor that cuts, rakes and bales the hay, though he leaves the "muscle" part of the job, throwing the bales into the wagon, to a helper.
Pat Barch, Hoffman Estates' village historian, says Bergman is the oldest farm operator in Cook County, and he has held the distinction for the last few years.
"We were looking for farm families that lived in the area for a museum display," Barch says. "The other people have all moved away, but Harold's still here. And he's still farming."
Already this season, he's harvested one-third of his crop, he says, but the recent heavy rains have set him back. He needs a series of warm days to dry out the hay.
His customers range from thoroughbred horse trainers at Arlington Park to local recreational horse owners.
Bergman's roots in the area go back to 1850, when his great grandfather first purchased the land. At its peak, the farm included 200 acres, with Bergman's father, Daniel, milking 35 Holstein cows.
The Cook County Forest Preserve District acquired a majority of the land in the mid-1960s to develop the Ned Brown Preserve, leaving 38 acres on the north side of Algonquin Road, where the family grew crops, including wheat, oats, hay, barley, corn and soybeans.
Bergman, a 1933 graduate of Palatine High School, left the farm to attend the University of Illinois and after graduating, taught agriculture and science courses to students at a high school in southern Indiana. "Most of my students went off to serve in World War II and they changed the name of the course to home economics," Bergman says.
He returned to the farm after four years, when his father became ill and there was talk of having to sell out. His father recovered, and lived to be 98. Bergman's grandfather lived to be 96.
Bergman eventually converted the entire farm to producing hay, figuring it would cut down on wind and soil erosion. He was among the founders of the North Cook County Soil and Water Conservation District, which eventually switched its emphasis from agriculture to providing knowledge about erosion to local municipalities trying to manage growing housing developments.
Over the years, Bergman also has served on the rural park district that evolved into the Palatine Park District, as well as the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District and the Cook County Farm Bureau.
His father served on the school board that oversaw the building of Palatine High School, which opened in 1928.
"I do my chores and go on," he says of most days in an interview shortly before the arrival of his special day. "But in this case, I'll have to make an exception."