Constable: Hoffman Estates farmer, 98, says maybe it's time to retire
By Burt Constable
In 1852, Louis Bergman left Alsace-Lorraine on the border of Germany and France to start his new life as a farmer in what is now Hoffman Estates. That Bergman farm era ends at 9:45 a.m. Sunday, when Bergman's 98-year-old great-grandson, Harold, will auction off five generations of farm equipment and personal belongings on the family farm, which has been sold to a housing developer.
Open to the public, the auction will take place on the farm at 2150 W. Algonquin Road, just west of the Harper College campus and Ela Road. Friend Leon Dahlberg, a retired Wonder Lake engineer and substitute teacher who helps Bergman farm, brings in a crew of volunteers to help his old friend pack up items for the auction.
"History comes to an end," says Bergman, who still lives in the farmhouse where he was born in 1916. "That's life. You've got to adjust to what the next day brings."
This auction should bring Bergman the ability to celebrate his 99th birthday on June 1 without having to worry about a summer of baling hay.
"Last summer we put up 3,000 bales of hay," says Dahlberg, who recently installed new brakes on Bergman's 1982 pickup truck and rounds up friends to help Bergman around the farm.
"Thanks to guys like Leon, we've been able to make a little hay in the summertime," Bergman says, noting his little 38-acre farm can produce more than 4,000 bales if the weather cooperates. Once a 200-acre dairy farm, with horses, hogs, chickens and a variety of crops, that changed in 1966 when the Cook County Forest Preserve used eminent domain to buy most of Bergman's farm. Forced to adapt, Bergman began growing hay exclusively, a move hailed by environmentalists as a way to prevent soil erosion.
Bergman's hay is in demand from trainers at Arlington Park racetrack and horse owners across the suburbs.
"You need the hot sun to dry the hay," says Bergman, explaining how, at his age, he lets others lift the bales, while he just works the hay rake.
"Sitting on the tractor, that I could do," Bergman says. Even in his youth, when a team of horses pulled the hay rake, the summer heat never got him down.
"The northeast breeze, that's a real air-conditioner around here," the farmer says.
Bergman graduated from Palatine High School in 1933, after his father, Daniel Jr., served on the school board and was instrumental in building the new school. Family members also were among the early settlers who supported the nearby church, which is now the St. John United Church of Christ. Harold Bergman still operates the accompanying Mount Hope Cemetery, which was started by his grandfather, Daniel Sr.
Harold Bergman graduated from the University of Illinois in 1939, married his sweetheart, Elsie, in 1940, and taught agriculture in Indiana until 1943, when he returned home to help on the farm when his dad got sick. His father recovered and lived to be 98. His grandfather died at 96. His wife, a city girl who learned to drive a tractor, died in 2004. Bergman's daughter, Georgia Alspach, a teacher in Palatine Township Elementary District 15, died of ALS in 1997. His son, Stephen, also a teacher, lives in Naperville, where Bergman says he might end up.
"I'm going to stay in the house until they kick me out," says Harold Bergman, who envisions the house becoming a museum on the 3 acres that will end up as park land.
"We would love that, but we would have to have funding to save it," says Pat Barch, the Hoffman Estates historian, who notes the family helped shape the suburb and that Bergman has donated an antique plow and lots of old photographs to the village. "He's just a dear man."
The farm has become too much for him. "I can't handle it," Bergman says of the upkeep, noting all the tree limbs that came down in the last storm. "Yet, it has sentimental value, and that I can't handle, either."
Sunday's farm auction will feature Bergman's old tractors, hay rakes, hay wagons, pitchforks and other "toys you need to do the work," he says.
"I've had them long enough," Bergman says, pondering his retirement from farming. "I've got to get a different mentality. I kind of delayed my retirement."
The auction also includes personal items such as vintage books, fine French china that has been in the family for generations, a few old guns and some antique toys.
"You know where I found that?" says volunteer helper Dan Barten of Wauconda, as he brandishes a pristine, shiny Kit Carson toy pistol. "I found that in the couch cushions."
Barten, his wife Laura and 14-year-old daughter, Lydia, also found a couple of 19th-century Stetson derby hats in mint condition and still in their original boxes, ticket stubs from old Cubs games and other events, and plenty of interesting items from the past.
"When you have five generations living in a house," Bergman says, "you have a lot of stuff."