Naper Settlement may add agricultural history center

Take one look at the Naperville of 2014 and it's hard to see the city's history is deeply rooted in farming.

Naperville's historical stewards want to change that perception, so they're making plans for an agricultural history center at Naper Settlement.

"It's an important piece of Naperville history," said Debbie Grinnell, vice president of museum services for Naper Settlement. "Especially in today's environment, when people see the modern Naperville they don't realize what farming meant to the community."

The last remaining members of the disbanded Wheatland Plowing Match Association, which used to hold plowing competitions in the south Naperville and Plainfield area, have a much better concept of what agriculture meant and how it helped the area grow.

Wilbert Hageman, 83, of Big Rock, grew up on a farm in Naperville and was a longtime Plowing Match Association member.

Now that the organization is defunct, he is working to donate much of its equipment to Naper Settlement for use in the future agricultural history center.

"We have quite a bit of equipment from way back and there is some history behind most of it," Hageman said.

The highlight could be a nearly 100-year-old threshing machine used to separate grain from straw.

Hageman said he remembers his uncle driving the steel-wheeled machine from his farm near Ogden Avenue and Route 59 to the farm where Hageman lived on Plank Road east of downtown Naperville.

"That threshing machine has a history of being around in Naperville," Hageman said. "It's not just one that was picked up some place."

Historic farming implements that got the job done without the help of computerized technology show how innovative people were a century ago, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, the settlement's new president and CEO. Such artifacts add to the settlement's ability to tell the story of Naperville's time as a farming-based community and connect that period to the technological and commercial times of the modern era.

Items like the threshing machine caught the settlement's attention because of "the aspects of farming that it can bring to life and the information that we can then use from that to share with students and families on the history of farming, which was the basis of Naperville's economy," Grinnell said.

It's only the beginning of the process of building an agricultural history center, but next steps include developing donated artifacts into a story about farm history and researching historical facts for an exhibit.

The settlement then can consider how large of a building it will need for the exhibit and start fundraising for what Steve Grosskopf, vice chairman of the Naperville Heritage Society board, said will be a way to recognize another new aspect of Naperville's background.

"We want to make sure we honor and respect the rich history we have," Grosskopf said.

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