SADORUS — Sitting in the office at the grain elevator in Sadorus, Tim Black knows the weather this time of year without even looking out the window.
"If it's raining, everybody's out there," he says, pointing to the lobby of Premiere Cooperative's small brick building in the middle of town, where a row of tall silos that dwarf the water tower dominate the skyline and hold up to 2.5 million bushels of grain.
Farmers, who grow mostly corn and beans on the thousands of acres of flat, soil-rich land surrounding the village of just over 400, gather every morning for coffee at the elevator that's been at the center of Sadorus for decades, nestled against the Norfolk Southern Railroad line that carries away most of Premiere's grain.
Like much of small-town America, Sadorus owes its existence to the railroad that finally plodded west two decades after William Sadorus deeded property to the Great Western Railroad in 1837 — a couple years after the first house was built — and donated land for a jail, churches and a school. He sold remaining lots at $10 each for the town that was platted in 1837 and bears his family name.
"It would be full," Black says of the grain elevator lobby, if it were raining.
This spring, it's been full a lot.
Overcast with no rain on this morning, only two coffee drinkers sit in the small wood-paneled room in chairs pushed against the walls. A handful of farmers just left to see how wet their fields might be after less than an inch of rain the previous day.
Bob Styan, a farmer west of Sadorus who nicknamed their elevator gathering spot the "University of Sadorus," says his rain gauge measured six-tenths of an inch this morning. J.R. Decker, dressed in Illini fan gear, says the gauge on his farm south of town had only two-tenths of an inch.
Other than tariffs on grain, precipitation is the major topic this spring at the University of Sadorus. At this point, any rain is too much, as most farmers outside town are weeks behind getting crops in the ground due to wet fields.
"It's a challenging year," says Styan, explaining that a lot of farmers are now running up against a June 5 deadline for crop insurance that only pays if you plant.
After four or five, even six, good years of production, Styan says, the industry is facing major yield losses due to late planting, wet fields and major flooding elsewhere in the country.
"It would really help if they get this tariff deal fixed," Decker says.
Sadorus farmland: 'Richest in the world'
About 200 years ago, the same fertile farmland that Sadorus area farmers cultivate today likely convinced William Sadorus' parents to halt their march west.
Henry and Mary Sadorus left Pennsylvania in 1817, according to local historic accounts. They eventually stopped their oxen-led covered wagon with six kids in a timber area along the Kaskaskia River that became known as Sadorus Grove.
There were actually more trees than people then, and one large boulder, which now sits at the Sadorus Community Park entrance with a plaque listing Henry Sadorus as the first permanent white settler in Champaign County. And the town of Sadorus became the first county settlement, platted in 1837.
Most historic accounts confirm that, although another European pioneer, Rumel Fielder, was already in the area, two miles northeast of Urbana. But he moved on after eight years, sealing his fate in local history as a squatter, while Henry Sadorus put down roots, literally, breaking ground with a wooden mouldboard plow and dropping seed the first season.
Though farming has changed drastically since the Sadorus family transformed the fertile prairie into an expansive farm, the productivity of the land has not.
Just last year, Sadorus was in the news when Jerry Reinhart nearly doubled the average U.S. corn yield of 176 bushels an acre, harvesting 345.63 on a two-acre section of his land just outside Sadorus — second in the nation in the corn yield contest category, AA non-irrigated.
"Richest in the world," Black says, describing the farm ground today around Sadorus, where he grew up. Life revolved around school, farm work and 4-H activities, he says, which took them to the Champaign County Fairgrounds each summer.
"4-H was real big then," says Black, who's in his 30th year running the grain elevator in town. He says Sadorus families were large then, so kids could help on the farms.
The 4-H tradition carries on today with Sadorus 4-H All Stars, a club led by local residents that meets monthly at town hall.
Claim to fame: 'Dottie' Schroeder starred here
For fun, Black says, Sadorus kids "hung out with neighbors" and played baseball and softball — a pastime a lot of residents mention.
Village board member Jim Thompson fondly recalls growing up in a neighborhood where at least 10 kids around his age were always playing baseball on the dirt-and-grass diamond next to the grade school in town.
The building has long been demolished. So has the high school, which closed in 1950, when the Sadorus Pirates became the Unity Rockets following a multi-district consolidation to the Tolono Unity district.
The dirt infield and wooden backstop of the grade school diamond are still visible, but it's the ball diamond in Sadorus Community Park on the west side of town that the village board has continued improving. Adult softball leagues thrived there for years, but it's mostly used now by teams like Unity softball and from the Tolono Park District.
"One of the nicest in Champaign County," Thompson says of the ball diamond.
The influence of America's favorite pastime is evident just driving into Sadorus, where green signs honor Dorothy "Dottie" Schroeder, who lived here from age 9 and went on to play shortstop from 1943 to 1954 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, featured in the film "A League of Their Own." Schroeder, who's said to have partly inspired the Dottie Hinson character that Geena Davis played in the 1992 movie, is also featured in an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"We love the people here," Jody Peterson says from behind the bar at Game On Sports Tavern, a Cubs fan hangout.
Peterson and her husband, Ken, were drawn to Sadorus more than 20 years ago by the old building on the main drag that houses their tavern — originally a drug store, which Peterson says was the first business in the county. And after opening the tavern, they eventually made Sadorus their home, too.
"It's a quiet town ... just very family-oriented," she says. "We love smalltown living."
Mayor: 'Something to keep me out of the tavern'
Six miles. That's the distance between Sadorus and the nearest gas station — in Tolono. It's even farther to the nearest full-service grocery.
Mayor John Deedrick, a native, says the town has tried to recruit a Casey's General Store to town, but the company has a rooftop threshold of 750, nowhere near Sadorus' 180 houses. The town's population has hovered around 400-500 for the past few decades.
A light amount of new home construction has popped up outside town, but virtually nothing here. But that doesn't stop newcomers.
Rachel Germanovich and her husband moved to Sadorus about six years ago when they found a house they liked. Walking in the community park with her two preschool-age kids, Kira and Kal, Germanovich says they like the small town atmosphere.
"We enjoy living here," she says, as they stroll home toward the main Sadorus intersection of County Road 17 and County Road 19, where Deedrick bought one of the old gas station sites on the corner. He remodeled it into a shop where he uses a plasma cutter to make metal signs, in order to keep busy in retirement.
"It's fun to play with," he says of a hobby that makes him a little cash, too. "I need something to keep me out of the tavern."
He sits at a computer designing a new sign as fresh air mixes with occasional highway noise through the open overhead door to the old station garage. Other than grain dryers kicking on at the elevator and a Norfolk Southern train blowing through town roughly every hour, it's quiet in Sadorus.
Nearby sits Deedrick's in-town transportation, a golf cart with a metal license plate he made that says "Papa John."
"Everybody" at Lake Shelbyville campground — 60 miles south of Sadorus — needed one of those golf cart license plates, he explains.
Across the highway, Deedrick points out a few older residents planting a garden in their large side yard. He recalls going to an auction to buy a calf and coming home with a donkey, sheep and goat.
"We had more fun with those animals," Deedrick says with a laugh.
That's what small town living is all about, he says — more freedom and independence, fewer rules and regulations and a more relaxed lifestyle — although the village board does have to enforce ordinances from time to time.
"Everyone has their own style of living," he says.
Philosophy: 'Don't spend like some other towns do'
There's no village police officer in Sadorus, but the town contracts with the Champaign County Sheriff's Department.
"Our job is to protect the taxpayer," Deedrick says of village government. "The whole town's kinda family."
With little sales tax, property tax and video gaming revenue, Sadorus doesn't have a lot of money in the coffers.
So there's a lot it can't do, Thompson says, like add curbs and gutters or a sanitary sewer system, or rebuild streets.
"You try to upgrade as much as you can, but basically you're doing maintenance," Thompson says.
The town gets by, Deedrick adds.
"We just don't spend like some other towns do," he says. "Not on my watch. We're not going to go broke on my watch."
More than two years ago, Sadorus was struggling to keep up a water system that pulled from two underground wells and needed a major upgrade of its tiny, aged treatment facility. So the village board capped the wells and sold its system to Illinois American Water, which is now piping in water and upgrading infrastructure.
Thompson says monthly costs will likely go up now, but the town hadn't raised its water rates in years and could never have afforded what Illinois American Water is doing now.
"They gave us a chunk of money and took away the problems, too," Deedrick says.
Church scene: 'We are still kind of thriving'
Like residents of many rural towns, the people here can quickly list from memory what used to be in Sadorus — two grocery stores, a bank, two funeral homes, three gas stations, a hardware store, a drug store and more churches than the two still here (St. Paul's Lutheran, with a preschool, and Sadorus United Methodist).
But for its size, Sadorus has a surprising number of businesses.
"We are still kind of thriving," says Thompson, who credits farmers around town with keeping its two church congregations going.
Thompson runs his own plumbing outfit, and listed the other small businesses here — including Gene and Jeannine Taylor's Antique and Curiosity Shop, Lucas Deedrick's Overbuilt Construction Company, the Chop Shop salon, Terry Henson's excavation business, Jerimie Anderson's fabrication shop and Anderson Trucking, which has been in town for more than 25 years.
And in storefronts on the main drag, there's Game On; Beaird Insurance; Charles and Ginger Lozar's National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History, featuring more than 200 ship models in a 10,000-square-foot, 130-year-old building; and Deedrick Machine Co., which the mayor started long ago and sold in 2016.
But the newest addition to the business sector — a restaurant called Buford's, which opened in December in a completely renovated old building on the main drag across from the grain elevator — is creating the most buzz in a town that until late last year hadn't for years had a place with a full menu.
It came to be when a member of the Blue Crew Motorcycle Club, Jeff Buckler of Tolono, and his buddies were looking for a hangout. After seeing the opportunity in the old, vacant storefront — formerly the Sadorus Pub, which closed three years ago — the owner of Tolono's It'll Do Bar and Grill decided to open his second Champaign County bar-and-grill restaurant.
"The community is very supportive," says Buckler, sitting inside the totally renovated space that oozes character with an exposed brick wall, partly-original wood floor, high ceiling, wooden barrel high-top tables, and a wood-and-glass-door cooler behind the bar, an original feature from its days as a grocery store. "This little town has been good to us."
Buford's: 'Makes you feel like you're in a real town'
Blue Crew Club members helped Buckler with renovations and labeling menu items, lending their own nicknames like "Nuke" and "Snaps" to different sauces for 50-cent wing night. And townspeople have helped, too, Buckler says. That includes Brett Stewart, who made the wood table tops in his garage wood shop, and Mayor Deedrick, who's given him whatever he needs with only a reminder to wrap up live band nights by 11 p.m.
"And I've met a lot of nice farmers," says Buckler, explaining that even on a slow night, it's never empty.
Sitting on his back patio, Thompson says he and his wife can smell Buford's grill in the evenings.
"It makes you feel like you're in a real town. You can sit here and smell the food," says Thompson, who lives in the same two-story farmhouse where he grew up, on the northeast corner of town, with the rail line at the edge of his front yard, a full-sized caboose he bought at auction 20-plus years ago in his backyard, and a miniature train track circling his property with a tunnel that doubles as a garage for the miniature train that runs the quarter-mile track.
"I grew up around railroads," says Thompson, whose dad worked on the railroad.
In the 1800s, a lot of German families came to Sadorus to work on the railroad, says 91-year-old Betty Reifsteck, the unofficial town historian. She has several thick binders full of newspaper clippings, photos and other information about the town she's called home her entire life. "My boys thought the paper came with holes in it."
Old pictures show the wide, dirt street through Sadorus full of storefronts. She also has clippings about major news events through the years — the fire that destroyed the Lutheran church, which was rebuilt in its present spot, and two tornadoes, one in the 1960s and another in the early '70s, which wiped out some homes on the south edge of town, where Reifsteck lives today in a brick ranch.
She and her late husband both grew up on farms outside town, attended the Lutheran church and Sadorus schools together, were married, and then farmed side by side, while raising three boys.
"Then, if you had 80 acres, you thought that you had a gold mine. Now, it's 1,000 acres," she says. "Everybody's friendly. It's a friendly little town."