COMPTON – If it wasn’t for a muddy hole in the ground, Lee County’s oldest family farm wouldn’t be in business right now.
It was 1835. Illinois had been a state only 17 years when John Gilmore’s wagon bogged down on Chicago Road. Instead of giving up, Gilmore dug in and stayed, putting down the roots of what someday would grow into one of the state’s oldest family farms.
Gilmore traveled to northern Illinois with William Guthrie, a friend who once fought in the Black Hawk War that raged in northwest Illinois and southern Wisconsin only 3 years before. The only other white man around Lee County at the time was Zachariah Melugin, who had established the small settlement of Melugin’s Grove – which would eventually become Compton – in a large grove of trees just a few miles west.
It was nothing but swamp at the time.
“The horses got stuck and the horses quit pulling,” Steve said. “It was just miles and miles of swamp, and people couldn’t get around.”
It made for some fertile soil, however, and the land was improved during the Great Depression to make for for better farming, but remnants of swamp-like areas still exist in small pockets throughout the eastern part of the county.
Today, 186 years later, Gilmore Farm is a 1,500-acre operation run by the sixth generation of Gilmores, John’s great-great-great-grandsons Scott, 66, and Steve, 68.
Generation seven is ready to carry on the family legacy. Maybe the eighth generation, Scott and Steve’s grandchildren, will follow. Scott and Steve hope so.
Steve’s children are Emily Kofoid and Ellyn Schoenholz; Emily’s children are Edward and Evelyn; Ellyn’s children are Ella and Maverick.
“I can be next to my kids and my grandkids,” Scott said. “My grandkids, especially the little ones, want to ride in the machines for hours. That makes it enjoyable. You can be with your family.”
Riding tractors also was fun for Scott and Steve growing up when their grandfather, Ralph, let them ride along through the very fields they now oversee.
“If we wanted to drive a tractor, we’d go to Grandpa,” Scott said. “They were just a small B or an A, and I don’t think Mom or Dad ever knew that. The B had a seat next to it. The axle was flat so that he could put a box next to it to ride on. It was still really dangerous, you didn’t want to get underneath of it.”
The Gilmores farm corn and soybeans. Livestock used to be part of the operation, including hogs, cattle, sheep and chickens.
At one point, the family converted a chicken house into a farrowing house. By the 1960s, they had one of the first farrowing nursery buildings in the area.
Through the years, livestock became less and less a part of the farm, with the family finally getting out of their farrow-to-finish hog business when market prices dropped so low that a 500-pound sow generated only about $20.
“I always liked the livestock part of it, but it just got too much,” Steve said. “You can’t find much help on the livestock end. Everyone wants to get in a nice, clean tractor and a combine.”
The farm’s footprint changed, too, once encompassing 2,500 acres but now down to only 1,500 – about 800 for corn and the rest for soybeans.
For a brief time, John Gilmore’s father, John Sr., lived on the farm. John Jr. passed the operation to his son, Alexander; Fred came after Alexander, then Ralph took over in the early 20th century. Ralph passed it on to Scott and Steve’s parents, Edward and Donna, who turned it over to their sons a few decades ago.
While Edward was in charge of the fields, Donna was in charge of the kitchen. Both had their hands full.
“She loved the farm,” Scott said. “She would always make us lunch every day and brought it to the field. That was her contribution. You never went hungry. The machinery dealer and the seed dealer always knew when to stop, too; they’d stop at noon and Mom was like, ‘You might as well eat!’ She’d feed everybody.”
Edward died in 2017, leaving behind plenty of antiques and collectibles, including a large toy tractor collection he had built up his entire life.
“It became an obsession,” Steve said. “If a new one was about to come out, he wanted to be the first one on the list to get it.”
The family converted a storage building into a sort of family museum with a fleet of farm toys and family heirlooms filling the shelves.
“We decided to bring all of his toy tractors over here, and found out he had a lot more toy tractors than we thought,” Scott said. “We call this his museum to display what he collected over the years.”
Even the grandchildren play with the tractors sometimes when they visit.
The Gilmores are proud not only of their history, but also of the area they are from. Old post cards and collectibles from about a 20-mile area also adorn the inside of the farm’s office building, along with signs and logos of the Gilmore Oil Co., which was based in California. Also on the farm is a restored Compton Fire Department truck from the 1940s; the brothers also volunteer with the department.
The Gilmore property also contains the two highest points in Lee County. According to peakbagger.com, which documents high points throughout the world, the apex of their driveway is slightly higher than a point on the western edge of their property next to Compton Road.
The farm will remain in the family for at least one more generation, but it won’t be run by a Gilmore since the brothers never had a male child. Scott’s son-in-law, Matt Schoenholz, is set to take over when Scott and Steve retire.
This won’t affect their long-running status as an Illinois sesquicentennial farm, because it remains in the same generational lineage. If it continues for a few more decades, it will be eligible for bicentennial status. Only a handful of bicentennial farms remain in Illinois, the closest one to the Gilmores’ is owned by the Sturtevant Family in Carroll County, west of Shannon, established in 1820.
Scott and Steve are optimistic that their land will continue to provide for the family.
“We’ve had real good yields for quite a while,” Steve said. “Corn yields have really been increasing. Only recently have the prices come around on the crops.”
However, there’s one thing the Gilmores can’t put a price on: family.
“The good part about it is that you don’t have to drive far to work, but the bad part about it is that you can never get away from your work,” Scott said. “The good parts override the bad parts, being with the family and trying out new things, the new technologies and planners and combines.”
These days, Cody Cutter primarily writes for territorial "Living" magazines and specialty publications in northern Illinois, including the monthly "Lake Lifestyle" magazine for Lake Carroll. He also covers sports and news on occasion; he has covered high school sports in northern Illinois for nearly 20 years in online and print formats.