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Monday, June 30, 2008

Silos: An American Innovation

What structure on the American landscape best represents the nation's heritage? I would argue that it's the barn. Sure these days farming is a mysterious profession for most of us, but there was a time, and not so long ago that 80% of Americans labored on farms.

When you think of barns you also should think of silos. The towering, vertical silos we know today, especially here in the Midwest, are a truly American innovation, and go hand-in-hand with barns.

Influenced by grain storage pits of the "old world" and corn cellars of Native Americans, the first known upright wooden silo was constructed in 1873 by Fred Hatch of McHenry County, Illinois. However, Wisconsin bears the honor of having more silos than any other state.

The prime reason for Wisconsin’s numerous silos is its dairy industry. Until the 1870s, winter or year-round dairying was rarely an option, because it was difficult to provide sufficient succulent food for cows to maintain milk production. But by storing silage (green fodder) in an air-tight container (silo), it stopped fermentation, preserving the feed until it was needed, creating a boom in dairying.

The use of silos spread by word of mouth and through farming magazines. By 1924 there were more than 100,000. During World War I farmers were asked to raise more food for the war effort. Building a silo was equated with patriotism while building a large barn was a symbol of a farmer's prosperity.

Silos have been built of wood, fieldstone, tile, brick, concrete and steel, and have ranged in height from 35 to 60 feet. Beginning in the 1930s, barns and silos along state roads were sometimes used to advertise products, similar to today’s billboards. The attached photo of a silo (razed in 2003) was along “old” Route 41 (Greenbay Road) in Waukegan. Even with its paint faded with time, you can still see the advertisement for Miller High Life Beer.

A couple of notable silos that have been preserved in the county: Two concrete stave silos at Bonner Heritage Farm in Lindenhurst constructed by a commercial company in 1932 and 1950; and a masonry block silo (circa 1925) on the south side of Route 60, east of Butterfield Road in Vernon Hills--a remnant of a dairy farm and of the village's distant agricultural past.

The 2002 Census of Agriculture in Lake County shows that 337 active farms with 38,860acres of farmland remain in the county.

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