RURAL CHAMPAIGN — The number of farms in the United States was increasing at a rapid rate when Wilhelm Eichhorst bought an 80-acre tract near Leverett, north of Champaign, in 1887.
Farm numbers tripled from 2 million to 6 million from 1860 to 1906, and the number of people living on farms soared from 22 million to 31 million during that period.
Nearly 140 years later, Eichhorst’s family still benefits from Wilhelm’s investment.
Lee Eichhorst, who lives with his wife, Sandy, on the tract, made his living in agriculture — as did his father, Paul; two uncles, Harry and Bert; and grandfather, William.
He isn’t so sure that Wilhelm — who owned a saloon in Champaign and was an immigrant from Prussia around 1825 — ever farmed the ground after buying it.
Lee and Sandy Eichhorst raised three children and retired there.
“It’s a good life, and it’s really a good way to raise kids,” Sandy said of farm life.
Their children — sons Ted and Jim and daughter Molly — learned early never to say they were bored. Their parents would find some work for them to do.
The changes in the farming industry, however, meant none of their children could go into farming long term if they wanted to.
So, while the land is still owned by the Eichhorsts, it is no longer farmed by them.
“There’s so much more to agriculture than there used to be,” Sandy said. “Huge machinery. It’s a different way today. To get into it, it’s really hard. It’s kind of sad. Unless they’ve got a dad or a grandpa or a good neighbor somewhere,” it’s difficult for someone wanting to farm to realize his or her dream.
“The family farm might be a thing of the past before too much longer.”
Today, their ground is farmed by Perry and Spencer Sage. Sandy said she and her husband were glad to find the Sages because they are good people.
Lee, who is 83 and has been retired “about seven or eight years,” said his great-grandfather paid about $300 an acre for the ground.
“That’s quite a bit back then,” he said. “I think the interest rates were like 6 percent, so it wasn’t really cheap money either.”
It took a lot of work for Eichhorst’s grandfather to clear the ground, which was not ideal for crop-raising at that time.
“He drained and put a dredge ditch through it and tilled it,” Eichhorst said. “Otherwise, it was just swamp ground.”
Eichhorst has been farming since 1958 and lived on one of his grandmother’s other properties for about 20 years before building a house on the home place in 1980.
The 1885 house that his great-grandfather built is still standing.
“It had been remodeled,” he said. “It’s a nice-looking farmhouse now, but it’s had a lot of repairs over the years” and sits about 300 feet from where he and Sandy live.
Their son Ted, who works at the University of Illinois, lives in the older house.
None of the Eichhorst children made farming their lifelong vocation, although Jim did farm it for a few years. Daughter Molly is executive director of North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge.
“You had to find so much more ground, and that was so hard to find,” Lee said.
Jim is now the state executive director of the Maryland Farm Service Agency in Annapolis.
Lee Eichhorst has seen a great deal of change since he started farming in the ‘50s, including “the use of fertilizer and herbicides we use to kill weeds, and probably the seed that we use now is (greatly) improved from when I first started farming. The genetics have improved so much.”
Walking beans to pull weeds was a family affair when he started. Today’s herbicides, however, mean that job that provided summer employment for many young people is largely a thing of the past.
Sandy — a 30-year educator at Centennial High School and the University of Illinois — helped walk beans.
Unlike most of today’s farmers, the Eichhorsts also had livestock — “never a lot, but we had quite a few cattle, hogs and sheep,” Lee said. “Hogs were our main enterprise.”
Their operation included farrow-to-finish hogs for several years before changing the operation, buying young feeder pigs and feeding them until they reached “200 pounds or so for market.”
With livestock, that also meant baling hay.
“I even helped a neighbor who had a corn sheller back in the days we had ear corn” that was stored in cribs, he said.
Lee’s farm operation grew over the years to 1,200 acres at one point as he rented ground.
For Sandy, who was raised in town, farm life was a time of adjustment when she married Lee. But she discovered farm livin’ was the life for her.
“I liked it a lot,” she said. “I had a mother-in-law that guided me because I grew up in the city. As years went by, it got easier and easier. It’s an adjustment when you haven’t grown up on the farm.”
In addition to walking beans, she also tried her hand at driving a tractor, but when she took the corner of the tool shed off and “made a couple of mistakes,” her husband decided she’d better “stick to teaching. You’re costing me too much money.”