The farm that McCormick’s Reaper built
Visit St. James Farm, a place to tour and wonder
Thinking about gardens and summer and checking out new sights and sounds? Why not head north this summer and check out St. James Farm? For years the locals only saw the gate of the lovely farm where the McCormicks, descendants of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the commercial reaper, lived and worked. In 1851, Cyrus McCormick co-founded the McCormick Reaper Works, which would merge with the Deering Harvester Company in 1906 to become the International Harvester Corporation.
Today St. James Farm (http://www.dupageforest.com/Conservation/ForestPreserves/St_James_Farm.html) is part of the DuPage County Forest Preserve. While the McCormicks’ house is gone, several structures from late-1800s farmsteads remain, including a gabled-roof-and-wing farmhouse, which is one of the last of its kind in DuPage County. There is also the massive wood-planked German-style barn with cantilevered floors that date back to 1890.
The farm also is a wildlife and natural ecosystem set on 607 acres in Warrenville, Ill., in Dupage County. The preserve contains more than 100 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands and is home to more than 300 native plant species and wildlife with a wide array of bird life, like great blue herons, red-bellied woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches.
There is no better time to see the farm than May 28, when St. James Homecoming Celebration kicks off the park’s summer season. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Homecoming Celebration features horse and riding demonstrations, a dairy exhibit, hay-wagon rides, interpretive tours, children’s activities, recreation stations and, of course, food. A favorite is also a ride on Brooks McCormick’s beautiful Quail Wagon.
This year Wayne Zaininger, manager of St. James Farms, thought it fitting that this farm, whose history is intertwined so deeply with International Harvester, offer a display of Farmall tractors as part of this event.
The first McCormicks to inhabit the farm were Chauncey and Marion McCormick. The couple loved horses, and to further enjoy their hobby they built a Colonial-style brick stable with stalls lined with wood and iron posts from England. Besides the horses, Zaininger added, “To support their growing, award-winning herd of Guernsey cows, they constructed a state-of-the-art dairy barn with roomy stalls and assorted outbuildings. For the better part of two decades, the buildings housed a dairy operation that was a benchmark for farmers throughout the Midwest.”
The property passed to the McCormicks’ son, Brooks, in the 1950s. Also active in the horse set, the couple built the estate’s indoor arena, which was used for riding events as well as establishing the St. James Riding School for the Handicapped, one of the McCormicks’ charitable interests. Zaininger explained: “Not until his retirement from International Harvester in 1980, though, did Brooks begin to aggressively develop the estate’s renowned equestrian facility, which would include a 62-stall stable for competitors’ horses, a 1.5-mile steeplechase track, a 200-seat concession area and dressage and jumping arenas. St. James Farm hosted several international and dressage competitions during this time, as well as an annual steeplechase race, which drew up to 10,000 spectators and raised funds for the Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital.”
The site is a wonderful mix of farm, prairie and art. The art on site includes pieces commissioned by the McCormick family. There is a lovely fountain of three life-sized leaping dolphins created by Italian sculptor Fioré de Henriquez. Another Henriquez piece is a bronze relief of his granddaughter, Fiona, and her horse, Something Special. This sculpture is a two-dimensional form.
The love of horses is also included in the art on the property. There is a life-sized water-trough fountain created by Marcia Weese in 1985. Zaininger: “This granite, marble and copper fountain resembles a water trough. Water flows from copper pipes to an elevated trough and falls into marble pools. Although the fountain was created for aesthetic reasons, equestrian competitors often used it to water their horses.”
Hope McCormick provided a horse sculpture completed by Carole Harrison out of brazed and then appliquéd sheets of copper as a gift for her husband, Brooks, in 1963. In this same area, a much older mural, an art deco oil painting above the stable’s west entry dates back to Chauncey and Marion McCormick’s time at the estate in the 1930s. Zaininger said that they don’t know to whom to credit the mural, but visitors enjoy the beauty of the artwork.
One of the most touching pieces of art is the “I Saw a Child” relief created by artist Ann Frey. The bronze relief was built in the 1960s after reading the poem “I Saw a Child” by John Davies. Zaininger told the story: “Brooks McCormick hired Davies, a renowned expert on therapeutic riding, in 1974 to direct equestrian operations at the farm and shortly thereafter began the St. James Riding School for the Handicapped. The piece commemorates the school, which married McCormick’s passion for horses to a greater philanthropic cause.”
This is but a small list of the amazing things to see and do at St. James Farm. Note that this property is also close by Cantigny, a 500-acre park that once was the estate of Robert McCormick. Cantigny (http://www.cantigny.org.) offers nature trails, golf, and two museums, the McCormicks’ home as well as a World War I museum. Stop at both places and make a day of it.
Cindy Ladage of Virden is the author of three novels and co-author of two children’s farm books. Contact her at email@example.com.