Voices from the Past - Edward and Zora Butzow and the Origins of St. Joseph, Illinois
By Chris Gimbel, CCHM Intern
Museums are sometimes wrongfully seen as simply being a repository for physical artifacts and visually appealing curiosities. The truth is that museums like the Champaign County History Museum are hubs of historical research. Our collection is meant to help foster a greater understanding of how Champaign County residents lived in the past through many different mediums. Nowhere is this more true than with our collection of oral histories. Our oral histories are interviews that have been conducted throughout the last 50 years of our organization with figures of note from around the East Central Illinois area. These recordings play on a different sense than the largely visually oriented world of museum displays. They also offer an opportunity to hear voices that have, in many cases, long since disappeared. This will be the first in a series of articles describing oral histories in the CCHM collection. Highlighted today is an audio cassette interview of Edward Charles Butzow and his wife Zora, historic residents of St. Joseph IL. His account of the town’s past tells us a great deal about the harsh realities of farming in the days before the prairie was fully drained.
Listen to the original audio recording of Edward and Zora Butzow and view our complete oral history collection at https://www.champaigncountyhistory.org/oralhistory
Interviewer: [Your father] lived in the old St. Joe before it was moved?
Butzow: Oh yes.
Butzow’s father resided within “Old” St. Joseph, a settlement at Prather’s Ford. Joseph S. Stayton arrived on October 10, 1830, and he became the first permanent resident of the area. However, Joseph Kelley, the landlord of Kelley’s Tavern, provided the namesake for St. Joseph. Kelly reportedly became friends with a stranger visiting the tavern. After Kelley refused to charge the stranger for his visit the stranger said that he would “do something for him” for his kindness. The stranger was later revealed to be a politician as a post office was established in the town and was called St. Josephs in honor of Kelley’s first name. While not mentioned by name, it is speculated that the visiting politician was, in fact, Abraham Lincoln given that he was reliably reported to have been at that location. In 1869, the town moved to its present location on the Indianapolis, Bloomington, & Western Railroad and was incorporated as the village of St. Joseph in 1881. Plat data reveals the Butzow family properties (sections 33 and 34) in 1893. A large portion of time and energy was devoted to tiling the land that property owners presided over during the 1880s and 1890s. The reason for this was the ecology of the Champaign County area.
Butzow: “[The land] cost [Butzow’s father] ten dollars to a hundred and forty. He was talking about section 34 of the northeast corner. It cost about…I think about eighty dollars a lake. Then there was somewhere back over in the middle of the section if you walk off, that was somewhere around a hundred and forty dollars…”
Butzow: “Well, we would call it flat [land]. Of course, there were depressions and such for some ponds of water, which had to be drained out before using them.”
Before drainage, the area was described as “raw prairies with miles and miles of swamps with a wild heavy grass.” Illinois drainage laws were enacted in 1879 that promoted drainage improvements in the Headwaters region, an area of approximately 25 miles by 50 miles in east central Illinois. Butzow lived near the Salt Fork River near what was called the “Dutch Flats” that surrounding Flatville. The settlers of this area were considered respected experts in the drainage process. Butzow describes measuring and recording tiling lines for new property and what he remembered regarding the drainage process.
Butzow: “Stretch the lines and measure from the lines. That’s what you did. And you would, one day, survey it and add a sheet [of] paper that would call a depth on it [...] they surveyed it across here to get the level that they wanted. Then they used a line on top and it made [its] way down [to] get a depth on it.”
Butzow: “Well, what do you call them?...they’ve got another tool for them…the blade…they’re kinda round on the edgeways…It’s an oval on both ends [...] Well anyhow [it] scoops the tile out in a fashion while laying your tile on it.”
The tool that Butzow is referring to is likely a metal ball located at the bottom of a mole-tiler, a device that dug an underground shaft for drainage. A tiling rig would move forward, and the ball would gouge a continuous underground impression. With the introduction of clay tiles in the 1880s, along with the “network of tile lines and ditches,” the water levels began to recede. This expanded the amount of land available for farming and reduced rates of malaria by reducing breeding grounds for mosquitos. The demand for drainage tile stimulated the tile industry in Champaign County. A common supplier for Flatville residents was John Voss at Thomasboro whereas A. O. Howells built their first site in Champaign-Urbana. By 1882, more than a hundred companies manufactured drainage tiles in Illinois. Butzow mentions that his father worked in the tile business and gives a description of the tile manufacturing process.
Butzow: “Well, they have a machine…it’s copper up there that turns…a mixer [as] they call it [...] And then they got some fellows [who] stood out there with a tethered wire on it and a big hook…well, just something like that, you know. Just put that wire across, then use that wire with that to cut the tile off.”
Prices fell for drainage tiles as they were produced locally. Still, draining projects were expensive and complex. Often, county officials or even state legislatures were summoned to oversee these projects, making sure that drainage tiles did not run over someone else’s land and that the projects benefited all those involved.
By 1894 Champaign County was the leading corn growing county in the state of Illinois. Illinois was the top producer of corn in the United States in 1890, being followed by Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. As Bogart and Thompson put it in their Centennial History of Illinois, “As it used to be said of the southern states before the Civil War that ‘Cotton is king,’ so might it with equal truth be said of Illinois during this period that ‘Corn is king.’”
Butzow: Well, they’d hook one horse to [the cultivator], and they’d go down the rows of corn. And they have two…they had a beam right down through the center and on each side, they had one shovel up here and another one back here so that it plowed between the rows [...] That was for cultivating corn.
While a farmer could cover ten acres a day with single-row machines, this was doubled by the “muley” or two-row cultivator. Its purpose was to expedite the process of corn cultivation. Multiple estimates from Prairie Farmer argue that the introduction of other farm machinery, such as the steel plow and corn-planter, allowed a picker to bring in between thirty to sixty acres of corn in comparison to twenty acres under earlier methods.
Butzow: [The buggy would] hold about, oh, sixty or eighty or a hundred bushels. And we shucked about two loads. Then, in the evening, we’d hook up…according to the buggy, we should be able to get the full [stalk] from husk down to kernel while I scooped the corn off.
The central shaft of an ear of corn is called a rachis, though exceptionally large and sturdy rachis are called cobs. The rachis is surrounded by the edible kernels and husks, or close-fitting leaves, surround the ear. As corn is a member of the grass family, its central structure is called a stem, though it is commonly referred as a stalk. Husking, also known as shucking, was the process of removing the husks from corn ears. Corn stalks, with ears still attached, were gathered into buggies, or open-top wagons, and grouped into shocks (bundles of corn). Three to four hundred stalks would make up an average shock. Although ears with husks, and even the whole plant, could be stored, it became clear by 1870 that the most common method was to husk from the stalk in the field. This helped to prevent the spoilage that occurred if the husks became wet while in storage.
Zora: We couldn’t buy seed corn then. They didn’t raise it out here. So…we’d get the whole family out there, and you’d find a nice ear that looked like it was alright, and take a little bit of…what do the rest of you call them? Nubbins?
The term nubbin refers to small and underdeveloped corn ears. Only the ears that produced the fattest and best kernels were deemed seed corn: corn that was saved to plant for the next year. The corn would have to be dried and the kernels would be carefully stripped from the cob so that the plant germ was not damaged. Also, a culture formed around the corn cultivation process. Unlike wheat or other small grains, corn could be easily harvested by women and children since the process only required walking into the field and snapping off ears of corn. The husking bee (also called a frolic) was a husking competition that consisted of teams of twenty to thirty-five men and women; the team that won would win a prize. A big meal would usually follow, and it was possible that corn whiskey would be served.
Zora: You’d get them off each hand, were these real small grains. And then we’d shell them. And we had shell all over…
Dried husks were rough, sharp-edged, and clung to the corn. As huskers would commonly husk thousands of ears of corn, their hands could get badly cut in the process. Settlers used what they called a husking or shucking peg, a five-inch piece of hardwood sharpened at one end. This tool was a Native American invention that allowed pickers to have a good grip on the husk while they shucked
corn. Over time, farmers developed husking hooks, gloves, mitts, claws, and other devices that protected their hands.
Butzow: When you told whether they were growing or not, you’d take off a few grains and you’d put them in your mouth and bite the end of it off and see what it looked like. If they looked like they’d grow, then that was it.
In the years before seeds had been bred to ripen at around the same time, pickers had to pay attention to the degree of ripeness in each ear, giving greener ears more time to mature. The inspection and selection of corn was a defining part of the harvest season. As an added benefit, corn, much like its cousin sugarcane, is very sweet and can provide an energy boost to field workers when chewed.
Interviewer: Oh. And what did you do with it? They keep it over the winter so it’s in good condition.
Butzow: “Well, we just left it in the crib mill and people always picked the corn out in the spring of the year."
In the 1800s and well into the 1900s, corn was picked by hand and there were no machines to shell said corn. Corncribs or, as Butzow calls them, “crib mills” were wooden storing facilities with open slats so that the corn may dry. Although corn was typically shucked out in the field, corn ears that still had husks could also be stored and later fed to the hogs. Dried corn could be stored for the winter in these corncribs, making them ideal storage facilities for the harvest.
Author’s Note: I had not imagined that, during my time as an intern for the Champaign County History Museum, I would acquire such in-depth knowledge of the topographical layout and ecology of Illinois. I certainly did not expect to use three separate sources solely for the purposes of “corn research.” It was because the Butzows were so meticulous with their descriptions of these topics that I felt a strong motivation to write for strangers that I can no longer speak with. I have not even mentioned some of the smaller stories on the Butzows' lives as homesteaders, such as making ink out of poisonous Poke berries, catching muskrats, or eating opossums. All details, no matter how niche, support a nuanced and complex narrative of the past that inspires curious minds to think critically and develop empathy. I hope that this oral history segment (as well as all those to come) can help to bring some positive change to historical understanding. Special thanks to the Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (Funk) Library for their invaluable resources on agricultural practices in the late 1800s as well as the anatomy of corn.
(If you found this recording interesting, and would like to see what other oral histories the Champaign County History Museum has to offer, then please check out our oral history page on our website: https://www.champaigncountyhistory.org/oralhistory )
1. Plat Book of Champaign County Illinois, G.A. Ogle & Co., Chicago, IL, 1893. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
2. Atlas of the State of Illinois, Warner and Beers, Union Atlas Co., published by Lakeside Building Cor. of Clark & Adams Sts., Chicago, IL, 1876. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
3. A Commemorative History Of Champaign County, Illinois 1833-1983, Baker, W.C., Miller, P.L., Illinois Heritage Association, Champaign, IL, 1984. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
4. Essays On The Historical Geography Of Champaign County From the Distant Past to 2005, McCollum, D., Champaign County Historical Museum, Champaign, IL, 2005. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
5. Cornsilk And Chaff Of Champaign County, Morgan, R.L., The Champaign County Sesquicentennial Committee, 1969. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
6. The Centennial History Of Illinois (Vol. 4), Bogart and Thompson, Illinois Centennial Commission, Springfield, IL, 1920. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
7. Headwaters Area Assessment (Vol. 2), Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Champaign, IL, 1997. Champaign County History Museum, Champaign, IL, United States.
8. Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped The U.S. Heartland, Clampitt, C., University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, IL, 2015. ACES Library, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL, United States.
9. From Prairie To Corn Belt: Farming On The Illinois And Iowa Prairies In The Nineteenth Century, Bogue, A.G., The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1963. ACES Library, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL, United States.