Buried Treasure: Converting Champaign County’s Swampy Prairies to Farmland
Updated: Jun 5, 2018
By Jason Peterson, Feature Writer
Travelers entering Champaign County today would stumble upon miles and miles of cultivated farmland. Ask around, and they’d also find out that it’s highly valuable land due to its nutrient-rich soil. “Champaign County farmland is always highlighted as some of the best corn and soybean land in the world,” says Scott Irwin, the Lawrence J. Norton Chair of Agricultural Marketing at the University of Illinois.
However, when the first white settlers came across the area, they had a very different vision of it. What they found were vast stretches of marshy prairie land, dotted with ponds, lakes, and sinkholes. This is because much of the land between the region’s rivers did not have creeks to drain away the rain and snowmelt. Not seeing any potential for crop production, for decades many settlers passed over Champaign County and continued on west.
The vast majority of those who did settle in the region, starting in the 1820s, stayed within forested groves near rivers. The most common locations for settlements were the Salt Fork Timber (located around present-day St. Joseph and Homer), the Sangamon Timber (around present-day Mahomet), and Big Grove (around present-day Urbana). The settlers found it easier to clear sections of trees and then plant crops on the ground beneath than to deal with draining the swampy prairie fields. Furthermore, they could use the timber for shelter and fuel.
Meanwhile, the majority of the land in the county—the prairies—lay untouched. In fact, according to nineteenth-century Urbana journalist, judge, and historian Joseph O. Cunningham, “The pessimists among the settlers often prophesied that these prairies would never be settled.” The pessimists were wrong.
Over numerous decades, the marshy prairies of Champaign County were artificially drained, cultivated, and eventually became some of the most highly productive farmland in the region and beyond.
The first significant step toward the drainage of the region was the Federal Swamp Land Act of 1850, which turned many of the swampy regions of the United States, including large tracts of land in Champaign County, over to the states to drain and make usable for agricultural production. In Illinois, the General Assembly granted these lands to the counties. Instead of carrying out the drainage operation, Champaign County sold the land to individual owners to drain and cultivate and used the revenue to fund other projects, such as the construction of the courthouse. This sparked interest among speculators and other people in search of cheap land.
Another major factor, and a significant force behind migration to Champaign County, was the coming of the Illinois Central Railroad in the mid-1850s. The state donated over two-and-a-half million acres to the Illinois Central Railroad Company, much of which was sold to individuals to farm the land surrounding the railroad. With easy, low-cost transportation now available, scores of people flocked from the eastern states to snatch up these cheap lands.
However, draining the swampy prairies was no easy task. Much of the drainage was accomplished through open drainage ditches, either hand-dug or carved out with a plow. Both were back-breaking jobs (although plow innovation eventually improved) and had to be done under the hot summer sun when the mud was dry enough to allow for digging. Another method used was tile drainage, in which the farmer placed cylindrical clay tiles end-to-end in a drainage ditch to pipe the water out. The new landowners faced other challenges as well, such as illness (especially malaria), lack of nearby timber, and freezing winters.
Many easterners gave up and returned home. However, plenty of farmers stuck it out and eventually found great success. Among them were German and Dutch immigrants fleeing unrest in central Europe in the 1840s. Due to their experience in the lowlands of Germany and Holland, these immigrants were particularly skilled at draining the marshy prairie land. Many Irish immigrants, escaping the Irish potato famine, were also drawn to the region due to the low land prices. With few other options, they were willing to work hard to earn enough money to purchase their own land.
In 1878, the Illinois legislature passed a constitutional amendment inserting local governments into the drainage effort. The amendment allowed for the creation of drainage districts, in which district commissioners would oversee the drainage process, and the county would tax the landowners for the benefits received.
Draining the prairies of Champaign County and converting them to productive farmland was a long and arduous process, continuing even into the early twentieth century. However, what those farmers, speculators, and landlords discovered beneath that soggy prairie grass was a highly-fertile soil produced by centuries of glacial deposits—including loess, a dust-blown layer of a mineral-rich silt. This soil is instrumental in producing the high crop yields seen today.
Sometimes to find treasure, you have to go digging.
Emill, Martin J. “The Illinois Central Railroad and the Development of Illinois.” MA Thesis. Loyola University Chicago, 1933. https://ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1161&context=luc_theses. Accessed 29 May 2018.
Cunningham, J.O. The History of Champaign County. N.P., 1905.Urbana Free Library Local History Online Catalog, https://archive.org/stream/historicalencyclv2bate#page/n153/mode/2up. Accessed 25 May 2018.
Imlay, Samuel J. and Eric D. Carter. “Drainage on the Grand Prairie: the birth of a hydraulic society on the Midwestern frontier.” Journal of Historical Geography, 2011. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c944/a7537dd71591af0ef0d245ee997b264e6632.pdf. Accessed 25 May 2018.
Irwin, Scott. Personal Interview. 25 May 2018.
McCollum, Dannel. Essays on the Historical Geography of Champaign County: From the Distant Past to 2005. Champaign County Historical Museum, 2005.
Morgan, Richard L. Cornsilk and Chaff of Champaign County. Sesquicentennial Committee of Champaign County, 1969.