UI's demolition clock ticks for old barn, home

UI's demolition clock ticks for old barn, home

CHAMPAIGN – Don Maxwell's old barn and home still stand near the corner of South First Street and Old Church Road, but the clock's ticking.

"They're tearing down the machine shed and the corn crib," said Maxwell, who lost his farmland in 2003 when he finally struck a deal with the University of Illinois, which used eminent domain powers to get it.

The UI, he said, had had its eye on his 218-acre tract for years, recognizing its potential as a site for College of ACES test fields that, in their current location, stand in the way of campus expansion, a golf course and other sports and business facilities.

"When I started farming in 1962, my father said, 'I'm not spending money on that house because the UI's going to buy me out," said Maxwell of the house he eventually renovated and occupied which will also be razed sometime in the future.

Bob Dunker, an agronomist who oversees ACES research farms, said contractors will build a new 166-by-60-foot storage building where Maxwell's buildings now stand right across the road from Prairie Fields subdivision.

He said the barn will come down as soon as the university clears vendors to do the demolition work and the UI will also dispose of the house in the future.

Crop sciences department head Bob Hoeft said safety has been a major motivation for moving fast on the new shed.

Hoeft said equipment for field work is now housed at agronomy's South Farms headquarters south of St. Mary's Road but researchers have already moved onto new land the UI has purchased, about 1,340 acres in all, and they need equipment to work in those fields.

"First Street is not a good place to drive a 30-foot cultivator or tillage tool," he said.

Also planned for the new agronomy campus south of South Farms is a headquarters building to replace South Farm's famous Seed House and outlying buildings. Hoeft said the General Assembly hasn't come up with the money to get that job done.

Hoeft said he's not sure target dates have been set to have all agricultural work moved out of South Farms.

"They're already building the new hotel and convention center and I'm sure those buildings would rather have a different view so that may hasten things a bit," Hoeft said. "We're ready to clear out of South Farm. I love that place, but we don't want to operate out of both places."

Dunker said the new agronomy headquarters would be just south of Old Church Road about a half mile east of First Street, right in the middle of the new research farm and away from subdivisions.

Hoeft said he doesn't know the fate of the historic Seed House located just yards from the UI's new indoor golf facility. He noted that like the UI's Round Barns, it's on the National Historic Register but he said he doesn't know whether that will protect it or not.

Maxwell said connections with history aren't saving his gambrel-roofed, 80-year-old barn, which has a base made from paver bricks from U.S. 45 when it was a one-lane road between Champaign and Savoy.

"It's mainly wood, except for the foundation," he said. "It was a fairly modern barn for dairy cows and it has a septic tank under it, something not common. They'll find that out when they get to it. My idea was that they turn it into an agriculture center for visitors. It's away from campus and they could bring in animals. But they didn't have the money for that."

Maxwell, the fourth generation of his family to farm the land, who retired after farming for the UI for a year in 2003-04, has moved to a new home at Lake Park where he oversees farmland he owns elsewhere.

"We knew it was going to happen," he said. "We did a lot of work on that land, but it was time to move on. It will be interesting to see how it develops. They're tearing down South Farm little by little and golf is moving in."