Homestead offers unique chance to showcase 160 years of history

By William Lamb
Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

STILL an "outdoors girl" at 97, Emma Buck can be found most days gently rocking herself on her front-porch swing, keeping watch over the 70-acre farm near Waterloo that her great-grandparents settled in 1841.

To Buck, a slight woman who favors skirts, weathered sweaters and well-worn olive leggings, the farm and its modest log cabin is home. But it is also a delightful anachronism, a place without indoor plumbing or modern tools.

That's why historians have taken a shine to the farm, including its threshing barn and outdoor bake oven, thought to be the last of its kind left in Illinois. The homestead is a living artifact, a holdover from a long-ago era when the state's rural landscape was crowded with modest family farms, many of them run by German immigrants like Buck's great-grandparents.

The real treasure among the farm's priceless antiques, preservationists say, is Buck herself. The keeper of an oral history 160 years in the making, she animates the place with colorful tales of subsistence farming done the old way.

"I thought it was one of the most pristine, complete farms of that time period, the mid-1800s, certainly in the state of Illinois, but probably in a large regional area," said Annie Rieken, director of the Heritage Foundation of Monroe County, whom Buck approached nine years ago seeking help in preserving the farm.

Soon after her first visit, Rieken began an exhausting, ongoing effort to establish a historic park on the site after Buck's death. "If we had a couple of horses, we could start farming today," she said. "That's how complete this place is. Everything is here, every single thing."

To step onto Emma Buck's front porch is to enter a world where time moves slower, much slower, than it does even just up the road, where a public golf course opened in 1998.

When she's able, Buck still draws buckets of water from a well, or from an underground cistern that collects rainwater from the cabin's roof. Though she and her sister, Anna, who died in 1992 at 86, stopped farming the land after their father's death in 1966, Buck still sharpens his handmade tools each week. She strikes them against a whetstone and runs a leathery thumb across the blade to check her work.

"When my (great-)grandparents came from Germany, there was nothing here," she said last week, her hair neatly bundled above her ears just as it is in the old photographs, a hint of blond lingering at the tips. "It was only wilderness here. It was just wild land, just weeds and stuff. They had no tractor. They had horses for power."

Buck's great-grandparents, Christian and Christina Henke, arrived in New Orleans from Germany in 1841, and followed the Mississippi River north to Monroe County. Buck's grandfather, who was only 10 when his parents died of cholera, moved into a log cabin that a great uncle, Jann Jacob Von Buren built on the property. It's the same house that Emma Buck lives in today.

Buck said she has left the farm fewer than two dozen times in her life. "We went on trips once in a while," she said, shyly casting her bright gray eyes to the floor. "But most of the time, we were at home, taking care of our business. We weren't the traveling kind."

She never married, she said, because she didn't have time for men. Nor did she particularly care for the way women were treated at the time or the behavior that was expected of them.

"I was an outdoors person," she said. "I didn't want to be in the house washing windows or anything like that. I loved animals and horseback riding, but that wasn't done by women in those days."

Nor was it usual for a farmer's daughter to be a committed vegetarian. But Buck, an animal lover, stopped eating meat in adolescence, leaving the butchering to her father and tending instead to the plowing and gardening.

Buck's family consumed little, but threw out virtually nothing. The result is a clutter of antiquated farm equipment, clothing and everyday ephemera that has preservationists enthused over the farm's historical value. Earthenware pots and jugs sit in the hand-dug cellar. The old McCormick sidebinder sits in the barn, still in perfect working order. The Duo-Therm fuel oil heater, one of the few concessions to modern comfort, occupies its familiar spot at the foot of her homemade feather bed, even though it hasn't worked in ages.

"This is the story of a place that never changed," said Mike Jackson, chief architect with the preservation services division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "It's kind of the rarest of rare in the preservation world, someplace that was basically in the same family, in the same use continually. You're not having to find things that were sold off at an estate auction and try to recreate something. It's all there - the people, the story, the artifacts, the architecture. That's what makes it unique."

Preserving it, however, will not be easy. The steadily encroaching sprawl from Waterloo has earned Buck's farm a place on the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois' list of the state's 10 most endangered sites, and Rieken said there has been some opposition from neighbors who fear the traffic that visitors would create.

There have been some encouraging developments. When Buck's younger brother Albert died last year at 94 in a Chicago nursing home, he left her the farm, making it hers to do with as she sees fit. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has developed a keen interest in the site, even if it has yet to commit to maintaining it as a state park.

Either way, Rieken said it will cost about $300,000 to prepare the site for visitors. She expects to raise some of the money locally and apply for grants to cover the rest.

Buck has left much of the legal and political toiling to Rieken, a onetime nurse who moved into the cabin last December when Buck fell and broke her tailbone.

The only thing Rieken and her allies won't be able to preserve is Emma herself. She is making the most of her time with Buck, collecting her stories and anecdotes in a notebook so Buck can continue to give her farm its voice after she's gone.

Perched on her porch swing, Buck manages to take all of this in stride without losing sight of the reason she spearheaded the preservation nearly a decade ago.

"If that's what they want, that's OK," she said with a slight shrug. "Anyone who might have bought it might have ruined it in some way."

Reporter William Lamb:


Phone: 618-235-6142