Today only three dairy farms and one dairy operate in all of Kane County.
But in 1877, farms in Elgin Township alone had 12,000 cows -- more than the township had humans. From 1870-1920 an Elgin Board of Trade set the prices for butter across much of the United States. As late as the 1930s Elgin alone contained 30 dairies pasteurizing, bottling and delivering milk, cream and butter. The shape of that stick of butter you buy at Jewel is known in the industry as "the Elgin cut."
Except for watchmaking, no business has played a bigger role in Elgin history than the milk business.
Looking back at those glory days, Elgin Area Historical Society is producing a feature-length video documentary called "Dairies to Prairies." Its director, Phil Broxham of Elgin-based Grindstone Media Productions, previously worked with the society to make documentaries about Elgin National Watch Co. ("The Circle of Time") and about the life of African Americans in Elgin ("Project 2-3-1").
"This is a national story that even the people of Elgin don't really know," said Daily Herald history columnist Jerry Turnquist, who is doing much of the research for the video.
Broxham said "Dairies to Prairies" will explain how dairy farms operated; how the numerous creameries and dairies worked and what happened to them; how suburban sprawl began to squeeze farms out of existence; and how a modern-day "back to nature" movement is turning some of the former cornfields and pasturelands back into unmown prairie similar to what was there before white settlers arrived.
"Perhaps we should be calling this 'Prairies to Dairies to Prairies,'" Broxham said.
He said the movie should be released in spring 2018. Like "Project 2-3-1," which has been seen by an estimated 15,000 people, "Dairies to Prairies" will be screened in at least one giant public premiere, then will be made available on DVD to schools and private buyers.
A multipanel standup exhibit about the topic also will be created that can be displayed at the Elgin History Museum, Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin Community College and schools.
Broxham said he has been filming interviews with Turnquist; present and former farmers; former dairy owners and employees; and people involved with the restoration movement, such as the leaders of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County and the Corron Farm Preservation Project.
Excerpts from some of those interviews already can be seen online on a "Dairies to Prairies" page on Facebook.
The farm of today
During one recent round of interviews, Broxham squired retired Elgin architect Charles Burnidge around several former dairy farms. As they rode to the Chad Heiniger farm on McDonald Road, Broxham drove a 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. His 22-year-old son Eli sat in the back seat pointing a video camera at Burnidge as the architect rode in the front passenger seat and talked about the farms they were about to visit.
Surveying Heiniger's 140-year-old barn for Broxham's camera, Burnidge pointed out how the McDonald family, who originally operated a dairy farm here, had kept cows in the barn's cooler lower level and hay in the upper area. They had stored ground-up cornstalks (called silage) in a silo made by the Mason-Lawrence Co. in downtown Elgin and had arranged the barn on the site to take advantage of warming winter sun and cooling summer breezes.
Now the barn houses just four alpacas that Heiniger raises for their wool.
"As you drive along Randall Road from Elgin to Aurora, you can see the difference in the kind of barns even within Kane County," Burnidge said.
Elgin, the dairy center, has these two-story barns like McDonald's, designed to hold cows in the cool basement. Aurora, which reportedly had just six dairies in the early 1900s, has barns meant for beef cattle, hogs or just grain farming.
Memories of the milkman
Broxham also has interviewed two collectors of Elgin-area dairy memorabilia, Jeff White and Aubrey Neville.
Leading a program to explain the project at Cornerstone Church in Plato Center recently, White brought along a display of glass bottles used by various dairies from 1900-1950. He said he has documented 140 that operated in Elgin between the Civil War and the 1930s.
White said most of these were "Ma and Pa" businesses. Others, like Modern and Ludwig, eventually had dozens of Divco delivery trucks, which a man could drive standing up using hand controls. In many cases the milkman would walk right into the customer's back door before dawn and slip the family's order into their icebox while the family slept.
Watching Broxham interview Burnidge at the Heiniger farm, 85-year-old Aubrey Neville said that "Elgin was the dairy capital of the United States." Neville recalled how after the little dairies died, he ran a trucking company named Neville Bros. that delivered milk from the big Dean's milk processing plants to local stores all over Northern Illinois. Today Neville has filled a barn with 50 horse-drawn delivery wagons plus 3,000 glass bottles from dozens of dairies.
Before motorized trucks and pasteurizing, Neville said, farmers would deliver milk from steel cans in their horse-drawn wagons. "If you got the first ladle-full, you got the cream and you got clean milk. If you were the last customer, you'd get skim milk and dirt from the farmer's hands," Neville said.
Across the road from the Heiniger farm, Neville and Broxham noted sadly, a massive housing development will be built soon.
Farm of the future
Yet it's not enough to say that the cows left because farmland has been turned into houses and stores.
Dozens of farms still dot the countryside west of Elgin. But almost none still have cows and produce milk. To explain why that has changed, Broxham traveled 200 miles to film at the Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana, a mega-dairy farm so huge it has become a tourist attraction.
Broxham said Fair Oaks' 36,000 cows provide a scale of efficiency that would be impossible on the old-time Kane County farms that housed just 20 to 100 cows. He said the Indiana farm turns its mountains of manure into methane gas that both powers the farm and, shipped ahead to truck refueling stations, fuels semi tankers carrying the milk to dairies hundreds of miles away. "They use the slogan 'powered by poop.'"
George Rowe, treasurer of the historical society, said fundraising continues, but donors have committed $74,000 of the $91,000 needed to complete the documentary. More than a third of the cost came from a Kane County riverboat-tax grant. Other major organizational donors include the local Palmer Foundation for arts and literature, the EFS Foundation and the city of Elgin Arts Commission.